One of the questions that plagues scholars in the field of Holocaust studies is what will happen after all of the survivors have died. For decades, many organizations, such as the USC Shoah Foundation, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Yad Vashem, have worked to establish digital archives of audio-visual testimonies of countless survivors. This work is invaluable, but many were still left with the concern of future generations not having the ability to interact with Holocaust survivors. In response to this, several institutions have begun to implement initiatives using cutting edge technology to preserve this experience.
Specialized recording and display technologies are used to create holographic displays in which the audience can have an interactive, virtual conversation with the survivor. The creation of this interface is an incredibly involved process. Interviewing survivors and recording their testimony can be challenging, even without this additional dimension. Survivors are interviewed extensively, often over several days, facing cameras from many different angles. These images are then composited to create a 3D hologram that is lifelike and even includes the unique mannerisms, facial expressions, and body language of the survivors. Another key component of the holograms is the use of voice command technology. In the interviews, the individuals are asked hundreds of questions covering key topics of their testimony and commonly asked queries. This allows audiences to interact with the survivor by asking questions about their experiences. The voice command technology determines which audio clip to use as a response.
“New Dimensions in Testimony” is one of the special exhibitions currently on display at The Museum of Jewish Heritage. Created by the USC Shoah Foundation, the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, and Conscience Display, this is the first installation of its kind in New York. Indeed, only a handful of institutions in the United States have featured this type of exhibition thus far. “New Dimensions in Testimony” presents the testimony of Eva Schloss, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the step-sister of Anne Frank, and Pinchas Gutter, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and six Nazi concentration camps. As visitors walk into the exhibit space, Eva and Pinchas are seated in the front of the room. In order to ask either of them a question, one simply walks up to the podium, holds down the mouse, and speaks into the microphone. This queues the pre-recorded testimony clip. It truly allows for a virtual conversation between the visitor and the survivor.
My colleague, Katja Grosse-Sommer, asked Eva Schloss and Pinchas Gutter multiple questions during our time in this exhibition.
The experience of interacting with the hologram of a Holocaust survivor is profound. As one might expect, the technology has not yet been perfected and does have a few glitches, such as incorrect responses to the voice commands. While I was experimenting with the technology, I asked Pinchas Gutter about his experiences in Lodz, but it queued a clip about his time in Paris. These problems will undoubtedly be resolved in time as the technology is refined. As a Holocaust scholar and educator, I am excited about the potential for the future of this initiative. Although the experience of meeting a survivor face-to-face and having a conversation with them cannot be replaced, the technology used in “New Dimensions in Testimony,” and similar projects in other locations, has serious implications for the looming date when the survivors of the Holocaust are no longer alive.
For more information about “New Dimensions in Testimony” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, click on the following link: https://mjhnyc.org/exhibitions/new-dimensions-in-testimony/