We have just marked Yom HaShoah and Georgia’s Days of Remembrance, our annual reminder never to forget what the Nazis did to the Jewish people, as well as Slavs, Roma and others they deemed flawed. It’s also our annual time to ponder the ever-pressing question of how we ensure remembrance once no Holocaust survivors are left.
Recordings, particularly videos, of survivor testimony are invaluable, but they lack the interactivity that seems so vital for catching the interest of the generations most likely to forget, or at least to doubt.
A possible answer was demonstrated at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival in the documentary short “116 Cameras,” in which survivor Eva Schloss is shown going through the process of being interviewed and filmed for the USC Shoah Foundation’s New Dimensions in Testimony project.
Survivors are recorded answering hundreds of questions with enough video cameras to create holographic images. The resulting hologram can interact with audiences, answering their questions as a computer plays back relevant video recordings.
Students and staff at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College campus in Dunwoody got a taste of the technology — albeit on a screen in an auditorium, lacking the three-dimensionality and closeness of a classroom or museum setting — when the Shoah Foundation’s Amy Carnes brought one of the 16 survivor holograms, Pinchas Gutter, for a visit to mark Yom HaShoah on Thursday, April 12.
The event was organized by English professor Michelle Kassorla, the Hillel adviser at the campus. It drew her own students and other classes, a diverse mix presenting a range of questions, all of whom seemed captivated by hearing a Holocaust survivor speak and respond to them.
The interactions at times were playful and funny — that is, human. One student asked Pinchas his pick to win the World Series this year, and we got a reasonable answer that made everyone chuckle: “I don’t know.”
Occasionally, the seemingly mundane can produce magic.
One example was a yes-or-no question about whether Pinchas received reparations. He launched into a soliloquy of several minutes about the evolution of his views toward Germany and Germans.
In the early years after the war, he was so angry that he wanted nothing to do with Germany. He struggled to deal with the knowledge that so many people responsible for the Holocaust escaped punishment. And he wanted nothing to do with the “blood money” of reparations.
But his views mellowed over the years as he came to realize that it was wrong to punish all Germans for the evil actions of a few. Each person should be judged individually.
Perhaps the most moving moment of the 45 minutes I observed Pinchas’ interactions with the students came when he told his survival story.
He said he lived because of the actions of his best friend in the camps, a young man who was shot dead trying to escape. He carried that special survivor’s guilt with him for decades until he finally decided to go back to Eastern Europe for a visit — and found himself talking to the friend he thought had died all those years ago.
Trust me: Pinchas tells it much better.
The crucial point is that the computer driving the selection of answers is not making things up. It’s not slicing together words and partial answers to create realistic responses to questions. Instead, it’s searching the keywords in each answer for a match with the words used in a question.
The technology is not perfect, of course. Even a series of hundreds of questions can’t provide useful answers to every question anyone could ask when sitting face to holographic face with a Holocaust survivor.
Sometimes when Carnes passed along a question from the audience, virtual Pinchas either sat still or answered with a flustered “I don’t understand.”
Sometimes rephrasing the question elicited a meaningful response. Other times, we were digging into areas Pinchas never addressed.
We tried to learn whether he or his neighbors in Poland had Zionist thoughts before World War II. Carnes tried asking whether he knew anyone who went to Palestine, whether he thought about Palestine, whether he talked about Palestine or Zionism. Nothing.
When she tried calling it Israel instead, again probing for prewar information, we got a repeat of an earlier response about the postwar odyssey that took him from Germany to England to Canada, with a stop in New York that lasted just long enough for him to know he didn’t want to stay there: “I never lived in Israel.”
Carnes took notes throughout the presentation about possible areas of improvement in the machine-learning system. One suggestion is not to replay an answer once it is used in a given session, although in a setup like the one used in Dunwoody, with people coming and going the whole time, repeat answers have value.
The project is evolving as it is being road-tested, but it has great promise. In the not-to-distant future, anyone with an Internet connection could go to the Shoah Foundation and have an online conversation with a Holocaust survivor.
Pinchas himself expressed optimism for the future, and after seeing his holographic version in action, his words should give us all hope that people will never forget: “I always feel hope. I always feel hope. I’m not a pessimistic person. … If I wasn’t hopeful, I wouldn’t be talking to you or anybody else about my experience.”