Technology and Testimony

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.

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Pinchas Gutter’s interview for “New Dimensions in Testimony.”

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.

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The “New Dimensions in Testimony” exhibition space at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

My colleague, Katja Grosse-Sommer, asked Eva Schloss and Pinchas Gutter multiple questions during our time in this exhibition.

Katja listening to Eva Schloss’ response to her question. 

To see this technology in action, click on the following links: Eva Schloss and Pinchas Gutter.

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:

The Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust

Today was the first full day of our program and most it was spent at our American host institution: The Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. Established in 1997, this Museum serves as the premier Holocaust museum for New York state. The museum is located in Battery Park in lower Manhattan and while it blends in to the hustle and bustle of the neighboring waterside residential area, it’s architectural design is a stark difference from the surrounding skyscraper city scape.

The building that hosts the museum’s core exhibition is a six-tiered hexagonal structure. This was an intentional part of the design as it was meant to represent the six million Jews who died during the Holocaust. Interestingly, the specific location of the museum was selected because it completes a symbolic triangle formed by Ellis Island and Liberty Island across the waterway. Because the majority of Jews immigrated to the United States arrived in New York City and would have been admitted through Ellis Island and greeted by the Statue of Liberty, this location in this spot completes the narrative that the museum is trying to establish. In addition to the core and special exhibitions spaces, the museum also features a unique outdoor installation by Andy Goldsworthy called the “Garden of Stones.” Meant to be a place for reflection, this space is a calming reprieve from the museum’s exhibitions. Like the building, the garden is full of symbolism. Planted by local survivors of the Holocaust and their families, the saplings growing through the stones represent life growing through difficult conditions. Although stones are a symbol of remembrance and are commonly used within the Jewish tradition to adorn graves, there is further meaning behind the number included in “The Garden of Stones.”  There are a total of eighteen stones which is the number that represents the Hebrew word chai, meaning “life.”

From the back of the “Garden of Stones.”
The entrance to the “Garden of Stones.”
The 2018 Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellows Cohort at the entrance of the “Garden of Stones” installation.

The Museum of Jewish Heritage seeks to tell a wider narrative of Jewish life than many other Holocaust museums. The Core Exhibition space is divided into three floors to tell the story of Jewish life before, during, and after the Holocaust. Gallery One “Jewish Life A Century Ago” focuses on Jewish traditions and the diverse lives led by European Jews during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. On the next level, Gallery Two “The War Against the Jews” encompasses the Holocaust years (1933 – 1945), including the persecution of Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators, their efforts to maintain their humanity, and highlights the response of the Jews around the world. Finally, Gallery Three “Jewish Renewal” focuses on post-World War II Jewish life. This three-part narrative fits into the larger mission of the museum to represent Jewish heritage and not exclusively the Holocaust.

The second part of the museum’s name “A Living Monument to the Holocaust” is particularly interesting. What exactly is meant by this title? This is a rather unique claim for a museum to make. The museum was not meant to just be a brick-and-mortar museum. It was meant to tell the story of people’s lives and to give visitor’s the opportunity to engage with these stories. Additionally, many of the artifacts featured in the museum are still used by the family’s who have loaned them to the museum. This demonstrates the continuing life of the artifacts and the community which the museum serves.

We will spend the next two days at The Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust before our departure to Poland. I will highlight more of our experiences at the museum in the upcoming days.

Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellows Program 2018

In a matter of days, I will be leaving to go on the trip of a lifetime. I am honored to have been selected as one of ten graduate students to be part of the Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellows Program. Through this fellowship, I will be travelling to New York City and to Poland for three weeks. According to the Auschwitz Jewish Center, this program:

“provides a unique educational opportunity to learn about the Holocaust in situ in the context of Poland’s history and Jewish heritage. It is the goal of the Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellows Program that Fellows gain not only knowledge of the Holocaust sites they visit, but also an understanding of the legacy of the Holocaust in Poland, its effects on collective memory, and complexities surrounding such categories as victim, bystander, and perpetrator.” 

During our time in Poland, we will travel to numerous sites relevant to the Holocaust, including Kraków, Warsaw, Łódź, Treblinka, and Oświęcim (Auschwitz) as well as other smaller towns in the regions in which we are travelling.

The Fellows Program is the result of a collaboration between the  Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City and the Auschwitz Jewish Center, it’s partner institution, located in Oświęcim, Poland. I will devote more time to talk about each of these organizations in the following weeks, but feel free to check out there respective websites using the links above.

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The Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust located in New York City.
The Auschwitz Jewish Center located in Oświęcim, Poland.

It is challenging to put into words how honored I am to have been selected for the 2018 Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellows Program. This experience will be the culmination of more than a decade of academic pursuit related to the Holocaust and will undoubtedly be the highlight of my tenure as a student in the M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies Program at Gratz College. It will truly be the trip of a lifetime. I look forward to sharing this experience with you in the coming weeks! Please feel free to leave a comment or to email me if you have questions.

Hello and Welcome!

My name is Katy Matello and I am a teacher who loves to travel.

 “Travel is like an endless university. You never stop learning.”  – Henry Lloyd

Experiential learning, that is acquiring knowledge through experiences, can be incredibly powerful. Travel is, perhaps, the most profound (and fun!) method of experiential learning. We can discover so much about the past, the present, other people, and ourselves through experiencing the world around us. The combination of education and travel is what brings me here. My travel experiences have had a significant impact on my academic and personal education. I hope to use this blog to share these experiences with you.

To introduce myself a bit – I am a high school social studies teacher. Although I have a wide variety of interests, my primary area of focus is the Holocaust. I am in my third year of the M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies Program at Gratz College in Philadelphia. This subject will likely be a frequent topic for this blog. I am an amateur photographer and an aspiring yogi. I am a wife and a mother to three fur-babies. I have been on two continents (North America and Europe) and I hope to travel to a third before my 30th birthday. I have spent time in 4 countries (Canada, Cayman Islands, Jamaica, and Mexico) and spent a summer living in Montepulciano, Italy for an undergraduate study abroad program. I have also been to numerous locations around the United States, mainly in states along the east coast, but I have also had the opportunity to go to Alaska. Anywhere is my favorite place to travel, whether it’s across town, across the country, or across the world. The sense of adventure of experiencing somewhere new, meeting new people, and learning about another culture is unbeatable. I look forward to sharing more with you!