Sunday 26 January 1997
One of the most striking devices in Lest We Forget: A History of the Holocaust (pounds 39.99), a CD-ROM produced by a Belgian company called Endless Interactive, is a screen that appears while the program is switching from one area of the disk to another. It presents a triptych of record photographs - mugshots, we'd call them in less grave contexts - of Auschwitz prisoners. A heartbeat pulses as the cursor waxes and wanes in time. A weakness of CD-ROMs, their sluggishness, is used as an opportunity to insert an emotional device that gives the presentation a tempo; that of a slow march.
The pulse, the sombre graphic textures, the loops of sound-collage - dogs, shouts, strings - turn negotiating this disk into a ritual of remembrance. After the program is quit, this ceremonial undertone leaves a sense of calm and resolution. Maybe it shouldn't. Perhaps the militancy of Nizkor, or the unhealable psychic conflicts of Art Spiegelman's graphic memoir Maus (which has itself appeared in a CD-ROM version), are more appropriate states of mind. The assertiveness of "we shall remember" is preferable to the well-worn piety of "lest we forget".
It is indeed imperative to remember. The question is whether reiteration is enough, or whether it is necessary to create new forms of representation. This may mean transferring existing information into a new medium: Nizkor's long-term aim is to make vast amounts of documentation globally accessible by putting it on the Web, along with audio and video files. Lest We Forget also places archive material in a hypertext framework: 500 photographs from the Yad Vashem Memorial Archives, plus audio and video sequences. The text, written and edited by David Cesarani, is detailed and authoritative, centred on the factual and restrained in comment.
The result is a sophisticated production that presents the Holocaust in a manner suitable for secondary-school students, but leaves some doubt about whether it needed to be a CD-ROM rather than a book. Some elements demonstrate their superiority over paper elegantly, especially the charts, maps and timeline. These reveal their details selectively as the cursor is moved across them, allowing the viewer to take in one feature at a time. In the plan of Auschwitz, sections of the camp, once chosen from the menu, leap out in yellow. This simple highlight for the naming of parts - here is the railway line, here the Gypsies were held - is a powerful aid to memory.
But the graphics have too much of a life of their own. On a map showing the fates of Jewish populations in different countries, I found myself admiring the exquisite shade of green a country turns when selected, instead of reading the statistics. The graphics are mostly subfusc, but they are rich in texture, being composed of layers of transparent photographic images. It's fine design, but the lengths to which it has been taken suggest insecurity, as if the producers were worried that CD- ROM consumers would insist upon the sort of visual luxury they're used to getting from entertainment titles.
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