Virtual survivors

Using cutting-edge technology to create new ways to remember the holocaust

By Ilan Preskovsky

“Never Forget” may well be written “#NeverForget” in these social-media driven days, but we are at risk of losing far more than comprehensible spelling in our attempts to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. As time marches on and we move rapidly towards the seventh decade since the horrors of World War II, the sad but inevitable truth is that there are less and less Holocaust survivors around to tell their tale. Within the next couple of decades, the world will be entirely bereft of those who bore first-hand witness to Hitler’s, yemach shemo (may his name be blotted out), attempt to systematically wipe out the entirety of the Jewish people. Might technology be our only hope of preserving so invaluable a resource?

It’s true that the Holocaust is in no real danger of being forgotten any time soon – however, much some of the world’s most evil people might wish it was. Vast amounts of academic literature have been written over the past three-quarters of a century that dissect and deconstruct every aspect of those seven cataclysmic years in a valiant, but perhaps futile attempt to ever really understand what happened. Arguably even more importantly, the Holocaust has never had the chance to leave the public consciousness thanks to the never-ending stream of documentaries, films, comics, art, television series, novels, non-fiction books, and music that either deal with the subject head-on or are greatly informed by it.

Starting with works that appeared in its immediate aftermath (The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank; Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl) and stretching across the decades up to and including the last few years, years that have seen the release of such notable works as, in film, Son of Saul and the Zookeeper’s Wife; on the page, Martha Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls and Neal Adams’ We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust – the Holocaust has been a constant and critical part of popular culture for well over seventy years, with no sign at all of this changing any time soon.

For all of this, though, there is something that living, breathing Holocaust survivors bring to the table that even the most vivid films and most carefully curated museums cannot. They possess personal insights to what was going on that simply cannot be replicated by second-hand accounts and academic study. With Holocaust survivors comes a tangible, undeniable link to the past that quickly and definitively shuts down any sense of denial of the atrocities of the Nazis with barely even a word needing to be said. Warm, irreplaceable humanity – in other words, something that, surely, not even the greatest and most complex computer programme or machines can ever hope to come close to matching.

Using Technology to Spread the Word

Before peeking into the future, it’s clear that technology has played a crucial role up until now in Holocaust remembrance and education. It’s not a stretch to say that had it happened one hundred, or even fifty years prior, there would have been a lot more wild speculation and a lot less knowledge about what happened. Though, ironically, there’s a strong possibility that without a lot of the technology created during those years, there may not have been a Holocaust to begin with. Regardless, the printing press had, by that point, obviously been around for centuries, but the dissemination of information took a giant leap forward in the first half of the twentieth century and catapulted itself into the future with the second half of the century. Indeed, the further time moved on from 1945, the easier it became to find all the information you might need about the Holocaust; first on the printed page and on screen and then in countless forms on the internet.

Already, in fact, much has been done to preserve the words of survivors. Nowhere is this more true than in the 1985 documentary film, Shoah, by Claude Lanzman – who, as it so happens, actually died less than a month ago, as of the time of this writing. Clocking in at just shy of 9,5 hours, Shoah features nothing but survivors and their oppressors sharing their stories. It’s considered by many to be the only truly honest way to make a film about the Holocaust and remains a high-water mark of the genre. The problem, of course, with Shoah and other filmed interviews with survivors is that in a day and age where only the highest definition would do, where virtual reality has never been more convincing, and where attention spans have never been shorter, even a few minutes of footage of old people talking on grainy old video may rather fail to resonate as it once did. Less judgementally, watching old videos of survivors is simply never going to pack the same emotional punch as hearing one talk in the flesh.

A Virtual World of Possibilities

Even as more and more techniques are used to bring Holocaust education into the 21st century, there are a number of areas that are all working towards the same astounding goal of preserving the testimonies of Holocaust survivors in a way that would create a more authentic, lifelike experience with a survivor than anything this side of sitting down with them, one-on-one, in real life. Imagine, for example, being in your home country and taking a fully three-dimensional guided tour of a concentration camp with someone who was actually there when it was sadly operational. Or, perhaps you would like a sit down with a fully interactive, lifelike hologram of a survivor and be able to ask that person near any question you could think of about his experience during those fateful years.

Science fiction? Not even remotely. At the forefront of these innovations are a couple of related projects by the USC Shoah Foundation – the foundation set up by Steven Spielberg after his experience filming Schindler’s List propelled him to do his part for making sure that the stories of survivors are heard and remembered.

The first massive project, which made its debut at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival as part of the festival’s spotlight on virtual-reality filmmaking, is called The Last Goodbye and it features famed Holocaust survivor and educator, Pinchas Gutter, giving a seventeen-minute guided tour of the Majdanek death camp where he was sent to die when he was just 11 years old. Since surviving the camp, he has given dozens of guided tours of Majdanek, but his 2016 visit was to be the last time he would ever step foot in that evil place. It was during that final tour that he was recorded with the most advanced 3D and virtual reality cameras to create the definitive tour of the camp that would, potentially, reach millions more people than his actual real-world tours ever could. Donning one of many increasingly popular VR Headsets, “viewers” would be taken on a fully immersive virtual tour of the camp with a survivor of that very camp as your very own tour guide.

Related to this project and also making its debut at Tribeca 2017 – though in more prototypical form – is a holographic depiction of Pinchas, who, rather than guiding you through a Nazi death camp, is there to answer all of your questions about what it was like living through those years – and he is apparently only one of at least a dozen survivors who were extensively recorded for these purposes. Mixing 3D filming, the latest in holographic tech, and advanced artificial intelligence with hours of recorded answers by Pinchas and other survivors to create what is hoped to be the equivalent of an intimate one-on-one conversation. It’s still in its early phases, both in terms of the AI still developing as it is asked more and more potential questions and in the technology needed to easily and not-too-cost-prohibitively render holograms, but the ultimate plan is to make it so that these holographic representations of survivors can be set up in museums or even rolled into school classrooms to answer all sorts of questions in a way that would at least simulate an actual conversation with a real person.

These are just two of many exciting new possibilities in educating this and future generations of what happened during those horrific years of 1939 to 1945. We have yet to step out of that “uncanny valley” where technology can ever really convincingly replicate flesh-and-blood humanity, but the latest tech does at least offer a decent consolation prize as we prepare to face a future (Please G-d, one that is still a long way away) sadly bereft of that all-important, first-hand human-link to the Holocaust.

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