Face to face with virtual Holocaust survivors

Tech helps preserve survivors' stories

NEW YORK - Eva Schloss lived through Auschwitz. Her father and brother did not.
 
Pinchas Gutter survived five Nazi concentration camps and was, as he says, “torn apart” from his family when they were killed.
 
“And I was thrown out like garbage, to live a little longer,” Gutter says.
 
It’s an understatement to say that the two survivors have powerful stories to tell. The liberation of Auschwitz happened more than 70 years ago. It goes without saying that as each year goes by, fewer survivors are left to actually share personal stories of horror from which a younger generation can learn.
 
But Schloss and Gutter’s stories will now live on for decades -- if not much longer -- in the form of the “New Dimensions in Testimony” exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.
 
“We have about 60,000 school kids coming here every year,” said Miriam Haier, the museum’s director of strategy and engagement. “We want to be able to give them something they’re not getting in their classrooms.”
 
“[This] is an opportunity for people to talk to survivors in a way they have not been able to talk to survivors before,” Haier said.
 
Visitors of the museum can now interact with the virtual Schloss and Gutter, presented on two side-by-side 6-foot digital monitors.
 
Think Siri—but with real people sharing real experiences.
 
“This is the first time that an actual person has been integrated into the technology,” Haier said. “What you’re getting back is not some kind of encyclopedic answer from a robot, it’s something that’s been recorded that a real person has said.”
 
“Where did you go after you left Auschwitz, and did you have any family or friends?” a visitor asks virtual Schloss.
 
“We were liberated by the Russians in 1945,” she begins, adding that they never knew the exact date.
 
Visitor Sharon Nazarzadeh followed up: “Were you able to find any family members?”
 
“Of the four of us, only my mother and myself survived,” Schloss says as part of her answer. “My father and my brother never came back.”
 
The project was a joint undertaking of the University of California’s Shoah Foundation—Shoah is a Hebrew word for catastrophe which is used to refer to the Holocaust —and the school’s Institute of Creative Technology. The foundation’s communications manager Josh Grossberg said the original idea stemmed from work started by exhibit designer Heather Maio who, in 1999, started working on the technology to build a 3D prerecorded image of survivors and project it into classrooms.
 
“She saw the potent impact Holocaust survivors had on people they talked to and began to wonder what would happen when they are all gone,” Grossberg said. “She decided the world needed a way to authentically replicate the experience.”
 
That’s when she approached the team at USC. They began work on the current iteration of “New Dimensions in Testimony” in 2009. The process involved the real-life versions of Schloss and Gutter sitting for five days of interviews in a specially designed sound stage surround by bright lights.
 
“We put a lot of thought into finding the survivors who could handle the rigors [of that experience],” Grossberg said.
 
Her emphasized that in addition to the abnormal conditions of that environment, the subjects needed to be comfortable with telling and re-telling memories of “a very painful time in their lives.”
 
Because he’d had a prior working relationship with the Shoah Foundation, Gutter was the first to participate.
 
“The first participant needed to not only have a compelling story, but also the patience and constitution to work through any technical issues that might arise. They also needed to trust us. Pinchas was the perfect choice.”
 
The bulk of the interviews took place in 2014.
 
Three years later, museum visitor Lissa Blake from New York City, stepped up to the microphone positioned in front of Gutter’s video screen.
 
“Hi, I just want to know how the holocaust experience changed your faith and religion and belief system?”
 
“Well, my religion went through several stages,” Gutter begins. He goes on to describe being huddled in a bunker on the eve of Passover. “Under the threat of death when people were being killed and shot and murdered… we celebrated. We celebrated, with tears, the Seder in the bunker. That gives you an idea of how religion was observed.”
 
“The spirit of Judaism--of being a Jew, of being part of that religious spiritual community--never left me.”
 
Sitting on a bench in the middle of the exhibit, visitor Sharon Nazarzadeh--whose grandfather, she says, was the chief Rabbi in Iran—listens and is visibly moved.
 
“I’m sorry, I just got so emotional,” she said, accepting a tissue from a friend and wiping a tear. “You’re hearing their personal experience. And you’re hearing that under those circumstances how they still had so much faith and how they practiced their religion.”
 
“It makes it much more real,” museum visitor Lissa Blake said. “Photos are one thing but having a conversation with a survivor, it makes it real, and it makes you think.”
 
Museum strategy and engagement director Miriam Haier says this kind of experience can do so much more than a textbook can.
 
“It personalizes history, makes you think about the way humans were affected by these larger narratives of world history. But it also makes you responsible for asking questions and coming up with the right questions and figuring out what you really need to know from survivors.”
 
You won’t be able to ask the virtual Schloss and Gutter much about current events, politics, or the resurgence of Neo-Nazi’s today. But ask him about the future, and Gutter is optimistic that the sins of the past won’t be repeated.
 
“I am most hopeful that the world is going to be a better place than the one I lived in. I really feel that it’s important for everybody to strive towards that.”

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