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By Susan Warsinger

We go on with our lives even though everything has changed because of the coronavirus. It has affected our physical connection with the outside world. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, like all the other museums in Washington, DC, has been closed since March. I miss riding on the metro and taking an Uber to give my talks to our visitors, giving tours, going to my Echoes of Memory writing workshops, and attending the survivor meetings. However, in the middle of this dark time in the world, it did not stop the Museum from sending out its message. 

The COVID-19 virus, with all its difficulties, has started a new chapter in my life. I stay home most of the time except for taking some walking excursions so that I can bond with the springtime of 2020 and celebrate the splendor of the natural environment. I have had a lot of time to work at home on my computer, my iPhone, and my new laptop. I practiced “Zooming” with my family to celebrate my great-granddaughter’s first birthday. I was pretty naïve when it came to using this virtual tool. However, by now, I feel almost like an expert when I join the virtual meetings of my survivors’ group, my docent meetings, and my Echoes writers’ workshop. I have learned some Zooming tips from the Museum’s video producer and the program coordinator for Survivor Affairs.

When I am ready to be “on camera,” I wear solid, dark colors with no patterns and minimal jewelry. I sit during the meeting and position the camera a little above my eye level by placing five large books under my laptop. That way the camera does not look under my chin, and I can easily look into the lens of the camera. I face a window and do not let the light come in behind me. My house contains many windows, and my walls are filled with photographs of my children and grandchildren. Because the glass on my photographs reflects the light, I explored options and found a good spot to sit where the light is not behind me and not reflected in the camera. I want the background to be open and spacious. For my Echoes meeting, I also found a spot where I can use both my desktop computer to read the stories of my colleagues and, at the same time, use my laptop for joining the meeting. For now, I think I have two suitable spots. I silence my cell phone and other electronic devices and close the windows to reduce background noise.

When I enter the virtual meeting, I make sure that I “Unmute” myself and “Start the Video.” I also decide whether I want “Speaker View” or the “Gallery View” at the top, right-hand corner of the screen. At the bottom of the screen are numerous icons that I am slowly using more as I get more experience. I used the “Chat” icon a few times and learned that I can also read comments of other participants. I also know how easy it is to exit the meeting by just pushing the “Leaving” button.

With all this knowledge, I was invited to share my Holocaust experiences and connect via Zoom with the Museum’s Bringing the Lessons Home ambassadors. It is a program that introduces students to Holocaust history and then enables them to bring the lessons of this history to their families, friends, and community. The students take a 14-week training course in the spring and learn to serve as tour guides for the Permanent Exhibition of our Museum. The Zoom virtual program was planned on Saturday, May 16, 2020, at 10 a.m.

The idea of sitting and talking in front of my laptop for one hour concerned me. I have given so many talks at our Museum and walked around the stage, used gestures for emphasis, and created an intimate rapport with the audience. I wondered how I was going to see the reaction of the students. I thought about how I would communicate when it was time to change my PowerPoint slides. I had to find a way to handle the question-and-answer period.

When I joined the virtual meeting at 9:30, I was happy to see some of the staff from the Museum. Before the formal meeting began, the students, under the leadership of staff, discussed the topic about what kind of eggs they liked best for breakfast. While this discussion was happening, I took the opportunity to write down the names of some of the students just in case I wanted to communicate with them. Among the students, I was delighted to see James Fleming, the Museum’s program coordinator of Youth and Community Programs. We have been friends since he came to the Museum when he was just 17. He calls me his grandma. I was becoming more at ease, and when I was introduced at the appointed time for the meeting to begin, I was at ease.

While I was talking, I could see on the laptop screen, my PowerPoint slides and individual students. The students listened attentively to my talk. I could not believe how quickly the 45 minutes went by before the question-and-answer period began. The audience asked many fine questions that were not much different from when I give a live talk. 

I was happy to join the Museum on this journey into the digital world. At this unbelievably fragile moment for all humanity, when the coronavirus is still at its peak, the internet with all its aspects, including “zooming,” has proved to be remarkably resilient. It has allowed me to keep communicating, reaching out, and staying connected. I am able to keep doing my work, volunteering for the Museum, and connecting with students so that they can learn about my experience as a survivor of the Holocaust.

Tags:   susan warsingerechoes of memory, volume 13

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