The anatomy of evil: the Holocaust remembered

7th January 2000 at 00:00
It is one of the most shameful episodes in human history, and one we should never forget. Laurence Alster takes a look at the Holocaust as examined by three educational CD-Roms

Whatever the medium, the poles between which the serious chronicler of the Holocaust must steer are mawkishness and melodrama. Neither pays tribute to the millions who met a ghastly death, presenting instead mere comprehensible extensions of the commonplace as explanations. Some critics have condemned this as "Shoah (Holocaust) business".

Happily, none of these three CD-Roms falls into this category. For the most part, they are well-judged and restrained histories that never allow gimmickry to cheapen their purpose. Even so, a major drawback with all three is the absence of a print facility: users cannot print from the screen or even copy text to separate files. Which, in the case of much of Learning About the Holocaust, would not be such a bad thing anyway.

Best suited to GCSE, this first CD-Rom of a planned series of four traces Adolf Hitler's career from his birth in 1889 to the start of the Second World War in 1939. At the heart of the narrative is the worsening treatment of Jews and other minorities - gypsies, black children and the physically and mentally handicapped - covered through clips from films and newsreels, filmed eyewitness accounts and question and answer sections.

What catches the eye, however, is the use of conventional material. Slogans in photographs, newspaper cartoons and propaganda posters are translated. Panels with extracts from British newspapers display full awareness of Nazi persecution of the Jews before 1939. A click on different yellow stars brings details of their origin and purpose.

All of which is splendid; less so elsewhere. If the absence of a print facility is inconvenient, spelling and grammar errors are an irritant. One can almost shrug off "Reifen-stahl", "charasmatic" and "Heidleberg", but a reference to drawings of "poisoness mushrooms" as an analogue for Jewish characters in a children's book is too much to swallow. This and other horrors don't ruin the program, but they do devalue it.

The more specialised and advanced Stories from the Warsaw Ghetto poses no such problems. Instead, the history of the creation and eventual destruction of the area to hich the Jews of the Polish capital were forcibly confined is told in some detail.

Making good use of dissolves and animated scenes, the program presents the ghetto story against a backdrop of long-established Polish anti-Semitism, the rise of Hitler and the German push east. Prolonged coverage is given to the 1943 ghetto uprising against the Germans, but the program doesn't pretend all Jews were heroes: many Jewish policemen in particular are condemned as complicit rogues.

A fine program, then, the only niggle is its neglect of the Poles who risked and sometimes paid with their lives for helping Jews. The courage of the ghetto fighters should be celebrated; but so should the bravery of those who could have looked the other way.

Which is the line adopted by Bert, one of four elderly Jews, whose sometimes harrowing memories form the most absorbing part of Survivors: Testimonies of the Holocaust. "There were neighbours, Christians, who left food at night on our doorsteps," recalls Bert. "I am forever grateful to those people."

Part of Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, the program presents four witnesses' accounts in a style that is dramatic, but never sensational. Their stories unfold with the help of family and archive photographs, maps and newspaper headlines. As riveting as they are terrible, the memories form a bleak memorial to a psychotic, institutionalised vindictiveness.

If only the rest were as impressive. But the maps lack sufficient detail, index entries are in unchangeable small print made even less legible by a dense sepia background, and timeline entries are occasionally naive. As with Spielberg's films, so with this program: heavy on feeling, light on history.

Learning about the Holocaust: the Racial StateCD-Rom for PCpound;19.99 mail order from The Beth Shalom Holocaust Education Centre, Laxton, Newark, Notts. NG2 OPA. Make cheques payable to "Beth Shalom". Stories from the Warsaw Ghetto: Voices from the Past CD-Rom for PC and Mac pound;29.99 from Computer Bookshops.

For stockist details call Deena on 0121-778 3333 Survivors: Testimonies of the Holocaust CD-Rom for PC and Mac pound;25 from Havas Interactive, 2 Beacontree Plaza, Gillette Way, Reading RG2 0BS

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