How You Can Ask a Korea Veteran and Holocaust Survivor About His Experiences

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Aaron Elster sits to film his interactive 3D hologram. (University of Southern California)

Aaron Elster sits in a simple red chair, just waiting to be asked a question from his audience. He sits patiently and silent, fidgeting just a little. He's sitting there, waiting to be asked about his experience in the Holocaust as a young child in Poland, how he came to the United States and about his service in the Korean War.

Everything about this question and answer session is noteworthy, not least because Elster died in 2018.

His interview comes as part of a collaboration between [tbh] Together Beat Hate and the USC Shoah Foundation, called the Salute to Service initiative's Dimensions in Testimony project.

A production of Aaron Elster's interactive hologram formatted for the web. (University of Southern California)

The Korean War veteran comes alive on the screen in a pre-recorded, interactive video, prompted by questions from viewers. Questions can be simple, like asking his relatives name or more complex, like asking why the Nazis chose to kill some, while keeping others alive. You can even ask him for an abbreviated version of his story.

He was born in Sokołów Podlaski, Poland in 1933 -- but he's not really certain. When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, he was sent to their hometown's ghetto with the rest of his family; his father Chaim, mother Cywia and two sisters.

Young Aaron escaped the ghetto as the Gestapo began to eradicate everyone inside.

He ran away to the woods after Ukrainian soldiers uncovered their hiding place. His family was led out to the town marketplace, where people were put on trains to the Treblinka Extermination Camp. Young Elster saw people lined up against walls and alongside a large hole in their old potato field. They were all shot.

As they were led away, he asked his father what he should do. When his father told him to run, he did. In the crowds and confusion he made his way out of town and into the woods. He lived there and among various farms until he ultimately found a Polish couple who took him in and hid him, saving his life. For two years, he lived in the attic of a Christian family who already took in his older sister.

He never saw his parents or little sister again.

Elster was eventually liberated by the Russians and taken in by his Uncle Sam, a partisan who fought for the Red Army behind the German lines during the war.

They lived in a series of camps until 1947, when the young boy was sent to Chicago to live with a distant relative. When that didn't pan out, he was put in an orphanage until the Jewish Children's Bureau could find him a foster home.

He became an American citizen, an insurance agent and, eventually, a financial planner. In 1954, he was drafted by the Army to serve in Korea.

He describes living in a tent and then a quonset hut, how the rain was constant and terrible and how poor the war-ravaged country was. The U.S. servicemen were not allowed to mix with the general population.

"I got myself into the supply room after a while," he recalls. "My supply sergeant had a girlfriend. He was too busy! So I ran the whole place. After a while, it became acceptable. It became decent."

When he was drafted, he felt he should go and serve the country that accepted and adopted him. But he had reservations -- he was not the Army type.

"I look on it now as a good experience, but while I was there, it was terrible," he says. "But you know what they say, whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

Elster died in 2018 but his image and story live on. You can talk to Aaron Elster at the Dimensions in Testimony website, or visit him and talk to a 3D hologram of the holocaust survivor at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, which he helped start.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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