Technology keeps the Holocaust conversation going

  • Pinchas NDT 2 on disply at Muaeum of Jewish Heritage New York
Imagine a child not yet born who, one day, deep into the future, will still be able to hold a conversation with a Holocaust survivor, asking them specific questions and receiving their direct responses.
by MIRAH LANGER | May 10, 2018

Hologram technology and Holocaust oral testimony will together make this a reality and shape the future by enabling history to live on.

This initiative is called New Dimensions in Testimony. It is being spearheaded by the University of Southern California’s (USC) Shoah Foundation. “It is a way for people to have one-on-one conversations with survivors long into the future,” says Josh Grossberg, the public communications manager of the Shoah Foundation. “It enables people to ask questions of interest to them and to lead the conversation in directions they want.”

To kickstart the project, the foundation collaborated with the USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies.So far, 15 Holocaust survivors and one survivor of the Nanjing Massacre have been recorded for the project, which aims to eventually have audiences interact with a fully three-dimensional (3D) rendering of survivors.

For the project, survivors undergo filmed interviews while seated on a stage in a half-domed room whose ceiling is webbed with lighting. The survivors are surrounded by more than 100 cameras and asked up to 2 000 questions aimed at covering what might be most commonly asked.

Advances in display technology are moving towards being able to render a full 3D projection of the survivors which would not require any special glasses to view.

“While we filmed New Dimensions in Testimony with more than 100 cameras to enable it to be displayed in 3D, it is currently not being shown that way,” explains Grossberg.“We feel that the technology isn’t ready for that, but we hope to see it developed in the next couple of years.”

The interactive element of the display is, however, already being implemented. A person is able to ask the filmed image of the survivor a question. A programme then sifts through the pre-recorded footage of the survivor, matching the person’s questions with the most relevant response from the survivor.

This natural language technology has the ability to “learn” – by improving the speed and the accuracy with which it is able to match a response to a question, thus creating a more fluid conversation.

Pinchas Gutter, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, Majdanek extermination camp and Buchenwald, who later settled in South Africa for some time after the war, was the first participant to be interviewed for New Dimensions in Technology.Gutter told the SA Jewish Report this week that while he was excited to be involved, he “doubted that the project would come off”.

The filming of his testimony took about three years: “I spent many hours sitting in a big sphere, surrounded by thousands of lights and many cameras, and I had to answer approximately 2 000 questions all spontaneously,” he explained.

The project was first launched to the public in 2014 and Gutter, who is now living in Toronto, travelled to see the display at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Chicago, USA.“I felt that it was very successful. Hopefully, more Holocaust survivors will do it,” he said of his first impression of the exhibition.

His family’s response was one of “great interest and enthusiasm”.

Ultimately, though, said Gutter, “I personally do not believe that we will ever be able to understand the Holocaust. But as far as the hologram is concerned, I believe that personal testimony in this particular way allows a person who interacts with the hologram to be able to better absorb the enormity of the Holocaust and the truth of it – especially now that there is so much denial.”

Commenting on the choice of Gutter as the first interviewee, Grossberg notes that the participants were chosen based on a variety of criteria. “The filming process can be taxing both emotionally and physically for an elderly person, so they had to be up to it. Also, developing trust was very important.”

As such, the long relationship which Gutter already enjoyed with the foundation’s executive director, Stephen Smith, was key.

Gutter was “eloquent and thoughtful” in presenting his testimony, notes Grossberg, adding that in general, all the survivors have been “unanimously enthusiastic” about their participation. “They see this as their legacy.”

Grossberg says that when it comes to audience interaction with the hologram, people often seem to forget that they are not talking to a real person. “They often offer thanks and well wishes when they are finished.”

The project also seems to allow people to raise questions they might feel are too difficult or uncomfortable to ask the actual survivor, explains Grossberg. “They sometimes feel it is impolite to ask about the death of a loved one in person, but that barrier goes away with New Dimensions in Testimony.”

While the New Dimensions in Testimony is on permanent display at the Chicago site, the version with the Nanjing Massacre survivor’s testimony, which is in Mandarin, is kept at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in China.

The project will also be launched in other locations: “Our goal is to have it in museums and classrooms around the world,” says Grossberg.

He says the intention of the foundation remains that of collecting and sharing the testimonies of genocide survivors. “We are always looking for intriguing ways to do that, but we are not driven by technology. The technology is merely a tool that enables us to share our work.”

Virtual reality is also being used by the foundation.One of its initiatives, called The Last Goodbye is “a full-room immersive experience that brings viewers to the Majdanek concentration camp”, says Grossberg.The virtual reality film is about 15 minutes long and presents a tour, led by a survivor, who spent time at the camp.

Grossberg mentions another virtual reality project, called Lala, which is aimed at a younger audience. “In it, survivor Roman Kent talks about his childhood in a ghetto and how his pet dog brought him comfort. Roman is shown in real life, while his story is told in animation.”

Ultimately, the most gratifying aspect of the project is seeing the effect of the displays on people. “The interaction touches them very deeply. I’ve seen people come in with a touch of scepticism, but they will sit and ask questions for hours and often leave with tears in their eyes,” concludes Grossberg.


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