Visitors to New Dimensions in Testimony at the Museum of Jewish Heritage are greeted by two screens, and two microphones. By approaching and asking questions, the screens activate with recorded interviews from two Holocaust survivors. Using language processing and hours of video, the experience is designed to be a conversation that feels real, so that in the future these first-hand narratives are not forgotten.
The oral history initiative is a collaboration between the Shoah Foundation and the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California (USC). The USC Shoah Foundation already had the Visual History Archive, which has recorded thousands of Holocaust and genocide survivor testimonies. About a dozen of those participants returned to sit beneath a half-dome of lights, microphones, and over 100 video cameras to be recorded in 360 degrees for New Dimensions. This audiovisual material allows recordings to be projected in high-definition, and has the potential for a future three-dimensional display.
“[The Visual History Archive] is an invaluable resource, but we also saw how survivors can make a connection to people when they meet in person,” Josh Grossberg, public communications manager at the USC Shoah Foundation, told Hyperallergic. “Unfortunately, the survivors won’t be with us forever, so we wanted to find a way to maintain that connection in the most realistic way possible.”
The Museum of Jewish Heritage installation follows presentations at the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre in Toronto, and the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. New Dimensions is concurrently on view at the Holocaust Museum Houston through March 3. The New York exhibition includes virtual conversations with Eva Schloss, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau whose mother married Anne Frank’s father, and Pinchas Gutter, who survived six concentration camps and lost his parents and sisters. Gutter, now living in Toronto, was the first person who participated in the project. Through language recognition technology, visitor questions pull up one of 1,500 responses, able to react to queries like “How did you survive?” or “Do you believe in God?,” and even statements on Holocaust denial.
“What New Dimensions in Testimony enables people to do is direct the conversation in a direction that they wish,” Grossberg said. “Instead of watching an interview being conducted by someone else, visitors can ask about topics that interest them.”
The project was recently part of the 2017 Future of Storytelling festival on Staten Island, where participants were visibly moved by the interaction. While there’s no mistaking the recordings for a first-hand conversation, the responses on death, faith, and suffering feel very present.
“It’s not uncommon for people to thank the survivor for their time or even to apologize to them for the atrocities they suffered,” Grossberg said. “Something else we didn’t anticipate was that people can be more comfortable asking difficult questions to the prerecorded image than a real person. This is because they might be afraid of hurting their feelings or might consider it rude to ask such personal questions.”
As each year more Holocaust survivors die, and Nazis and Holocaust denial remain a part of the political and societal current, having these testimonies is incredibly valuable. Photographs of concentration camp horror record the brutality, but these dialogues humanize the victims. As for the experience of the survivors, Grossberg noted that “while the filming was difficult for them, they are proud to be part of it.”
New Dimensions in Testimony is on view through December 22 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (36 Battery Place, Lower Manhattan, Manhattan).