“We Are White Plains: Bridging, Belonging, and Building Community” Exhibit Garners Community Praise
By: Eva Mandelbaum
Smoke. Smell. Screaming. Those were Anita Lasker-Wallfish's first impressions of a Nazi concentration camp. Born in 1925 into a family of musicians in Germany, she had a relatively normal childhood. She went to school, played the cello, and spent time with her family—her lawyer father, violinist mother, and her two sisters. The fact that she was Jewish was merely a small fragment of her identity. But in 1939, this all changed. At age 16, she was conscripted to work in a toilet paper roll factory when Jewish schools were forced to close. In 1942, her parents were deported to a concentration camp. And soon after, she found herself as a cellist in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp orchestra.
“Auschwitz was really hell on earth. It’s hard to describe Auschwitz unless you’ve actually been there. But I mean, mainly the terrible smell and constant smoke and screaming and naked people, new people arriving, constantly something going on,” she explained when I asked her what it was like. But as she told me about her experiences as a Holocaust survivor, I was in the White Plains High School library during a free period. Anita was not. In fact, the Anita I was conversing with and learning from was not Anita at all, but it was a pre-recorded and AI- generated hologram of her displayed on a flat screen TV.
So far, over 400 White Plains High School students have had the mind-boggling experience of interacting with one of two people (either Anita, or WWII veteran and liberator Alan Moskin), asking them anything about themselves and their life experiences to get in-depth replies, all from behind a screen. The experience, which is a component of the exhibit called “We are White Plains: Bridging, Belonging, and Building Community” opened during the week of March 13 and will remain in the library through the end of April (before being moved to Eastview, then Highlands). White Plains is the first district in the country to partner with Common Circles in installing this exhibit, and in just the first week, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
Common Circles, the organization that brought this experience to life, is inspired by Holocaust survivors and dedicated to working against bias and intolerance. Sue Spiegel, Creative Director at Common Circles explained, “The reactions have been incredible. People cannot believe that they’re able to talk in real time and get answers to their questions, and even though they know that it’s artificial intelligence they really feel like they’re getting to know their story and that they’re speaking to them live. I think it’s really powerful. I think people are changing their minds a little bit about what they may have thought about the Holocaust, what they might have thought about Jews and anti-Semitism.”
Marla Felton, the founder of Common Circles, added
that this is especially important due to the recent rise in anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. “I think a lot of that is driven by social media and people getting their news source from a celebrity and TikTok and Instagram,” she said. “And I think that the best way to learn information is from first-person witnesses to history, and unfortunately, most of our survivors from the Holocaust are well into their 90s, even if they were children during the time of the war, and we’re not going to have them here in a few more years. So, this technology from the USC Shoah Foundation (that brings the dimensions in testimony and partners with Common Circles in this exhibit) ... it’s the next best thing to being live.”
Students attending the AI sessions were both moved and impressed. White Plains High School Junior Saumya Sawant stated that she enjoyed the exhibit. “Everything from the technology to the answers Anita gave were so realistic and eye opening to the tragedy of the Holocaust,” she explained. “I feel like people today are becoming desensitized to the Holocaust because of the way we're removed from the event...we learn about it through books and movies, but we are often distanced from the true horror of what had happened because books and movies can only do so much, and it's easy to 'remove' ourselves from them when we're done viewing them. Getting to hear a firsthand account from a survivor and ask her questions and hear her honest answers and opinions makes it more real in a way.” Another WPHS Junior, Gianna Priore, said, “There is nothing like receiving historical information from people who’ve been through the historic event themselves. It’s crucial for students to recognize and acknowledge important historical events such as the Holocaust. The Holocaust being horrific in nature, needs to be remembered in attempts to promote societal awareness. Students must be educated about historical events as well as the consequences of prejudice and discrimination.”
Although the interviews with Holocaust survivors alone are more than enough to spur interest among White Plains community members, there’s a whole other component to the “We Are White Plains” exhibit. The WPHS main entrance has been temporarily transformed into a world-class museum experience. This portion of the exhibit includes photos of community members by award-winning photographer, multimedia artist, and filmmaker, Bayeté Ross Smith, in addition to collages of artwork done by White Plains students, “common threads” cards (with descriptions of the identities of community members), and photos and stories of Holocaust survivors.
Smith explained that photographing White Plains community members for this exhibit was a part of an ongoing project that he’s been doing for a while called “Our Kind of People.” He has an installation of similar images at Columbia Law School, where he’s the inaugural artist in residence. “The idea is to really create experiences for people where they can look at their fellow community members but also put them in a position where they question their pre-existing beliefs and reflect on why they think what they think when they see their fellow humans,” he explained. “The primary reason it’s important for high school aged people is you likely have not had enough time during the short time of your life to be exposed to as much as someone older, so that’s simply a matter of making sure that young people have the
opportunity to be exposed to artwork like this, that facilitates important questions, because you all are not necessarily in complete control of what you have access to ...that’s why as adults it’s our duty to make sure you have access to as many different things that stimulate your way of thinking as possible. Then by having those experiences when you’re younger, you have to continue to do that when you get older and when you have more agency over how you spend your time.”
The “Our Kind of People” art installation includes photos of important White Plains community members (ranging from local politicians to teachers), in six different outfits, all of which represent a different aspect of their identity. One participant, White Plains High School gym coach Patricia Gil-Martin, shared that being photographed was a “wonderful experience.” She said, “I really had to think about my different roles and how people perceive me, and I think that that was the thing that was very enlightening to me and so it made me think of how I present myself and actually how other people perceive us.” Another participant, WPHS security guard Joseph Boykin, also felt honored to be a part of this exhibit, and he felt that he could express his identity as an African American musician through being photographed in different outfits.
Principal Martinez stated that he “loves the fact that we’ve not only tied [the exhibit] in with the Holocaust but also looking at our commonalities and seeing how we are part of the exhibit ourselves as White Plains community members.”
Felton said that she thinks that a lot of people are wondering about the connection between the hallway exhibit and the hologram experience, so she explained how the two are intertwined. “We have found through our research and working with professors at many universities that before you go and hear a Holocaust survivor or hear the story of anyone who’s different from you, it’s important to first start with self-identity,” she said. “To learn about yourself and your multi-layers, then to learn about your community, your classmates, your teachers, the other people in the building and their identity and their multi-layers and then to take that information and through the beauty of storytelling being able to connect...we hope that people will leave with a sense of hope [and in the words of famous Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel], that by hearing a witness they become a witness. And then they will go out and share the nuggets that they learned, the information with their families and friends and together we will be able to make sure that something like this never happens again to anybody.”
The official ribbon cutting for this exhibit took place after school on Friday, March 17 in the WPHS main entrance, and community members gathered to celebrate this milestone for both White Plains and Common Circles. “This is the best place to launch this project which we hope will be a model and will be able to be put out across the country to other middle schools and high schools,” Felton said. “Every person who is a part of this White Plains School district community cares so deeply about the students in this district.”
Alan Marcus, a professor at the University of Connecticut currently researching and evaluating the potential and limitations of virtual interactive Holocaust survivor testimony, explained, “I think White Plains is a really interesting place for this to be happening. This is a high school that’s very diverse, and it’s very diverse racially, religiously, socioeconomically, and I think there’s a lot of issues of identity that play out at this school and where people are really thinking about it. I think that makes it a really unique and productive place to have this for students and probably teachers too...this is probably going to push teachers to be thinking about these issues and how they play out in their classrooms.”
Mr. Vitiello, a WPHS assistant principal who was instrumental in making this exhibit possible, said, “I think it’s really a celebration of who we are as a school community. We’re made up of so many different types of cultures and backgrounds, and I think that whenever we can have representation with that and show who we are as a school, the struggles that face the community, I think that it’s really important.”
Many prominent community members and elected officials attended the ribbon cutting ceremony, including New York State Lieutenant Governor Antonio Delgado. “Art is a universal language, whether it’s music, whether it’s visual, there’s something to it that helps us see past the linear world that we live in. Language can sometimes be limiting,” Delgado said during his speech. “Art has a way to open up the mind and consciousness and challenge us and reorient our perceptions and so the beauty of this type of exhibit to help us not just reflect on the past but visualize who we want to be, the kind of community that we want to shape is of utmost importance. So, I just want to salute the White Plains School District again, the wonderful leaders on the ground here, and this entire community for embracing the power of love.”