One day, in the not-too distant future, there will be no more Holocaust survivors left to tell their stories. How can we anticipate a world in which there are no survivors on earth to give their living testimony?
Thanks to the creation of interactive holograms, the story of some survivors will now “live on” as people can have a virtual interactive conversation with eye witnesses to history, as if they are in the room with them.
Since 2010, the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation, founded in 1995 by Steven Spielberg to preserve Holocaust testimony, is bridging the past to the future, through its revolutionary New Dimensions in Testimony (NDT) project. Surrounded by 116 cameras, arranged in a rig to capture a three-dimensional recording, the survivors are filmed answering questions that people are most likely to ask, thereby preserving their stories forever.
Back in December 2015, London- based Auschwitz survivor Eva Schloss traveled to Los Angeles, where she spent many hours each day telling her story in front of the cameras at the Institute for Creative Technology’s 3D-capture stage.
Schloss, famously known as the stepsister of Anne Frank (her mother married Otto Frank) went through an intense and emotional interview process, where she sat in a 360-degree “light stage” contraption that she calls “the cage”. The foundation bought her an outfit that she wore every day, so that it looked as if the interview had been conducted in one go. Over the course of the week, Shoah Foundation executive director Stephen Smith asked her over 1,000 questions about her life before, during and after the Holocaust.
Schloss, who was born in Vienna in 1929, moved to Amsterdam in 1940 to escape the Nazis. Her 15th birthday, forever etched in her memory – 11 May 1944 – was the day she and her mother, who were in hiding with a family (separately from her father and brother) were discovered. They were arrested and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. They had been betrayed by a Dutch nurse, who turned out to be a double agent, working for the Nazis. Her father and brother Heinz were also arrested and sent to Auschwitz, but later perished in Mauthausen Concentration Camp.
“They asked me about my whole life, about all my experiences,” said Eva. “About my family, coping, my feelings, forgiveness, hatred, the Nazis, the size of the camps, the transports. They asked me about the future – what I think will happen. They asked me whatever you can imagine.”
On another day, she spent hours making 40 different facial expressions – such as sad, happy, furious, frowning, inquiring, laughing, suspicious. These expressions would be carefully matched to her answers. “It was technically quite amazing,” she said.
The project uses groundbreaking natural language software that allows audiences to interact with the recorded image of a survivor, who responds to questions in real time. It is powered by complex algorithms that allow for a realistic conversation to take place. Schloss believes the interactive holograms will stand the test of time and be of great benefit to those wishing to learn about the Holocaust in generations to come. The one-on-one conversation has been described as very natural. One viewer, who interacted with survivor Pinchas Gutter, said: “At one point, I realized I felt rude interrupting a video.”
To date, the NDT project has interviewed 16 survivors, including one in Mandarin by Madame Xia Shuqin, a child survivor of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre. Also included in Hebrew is the testimony of survivor Nimrod “Zigi” Ariav. His interview is still in production and the Foundation hopes that it will be shown in Israel, possibly later this year.
In February 2013, Toronto native Davina Pardo read about the NDT project. Fascinated by the initiative she immediately looked into the possibility of making a film. Says Pardo: “It brought up so many questions that interested me: How do we preserve the past? Why do people tell their stories? What will happen when the living history of the Holocaust is gone? I started to think about a film, a documentary about the past and the future; about how these stories have been – and how they will be – told and remembered.”
Her intrigue led to her making a 15-minute documentary, 116 Cameras, short-listed in the Oscars' 'Documentary Short' category. exploring trauma, memory and technology, through Eva Schloss’s experience of retelling her memories in front of the cameras.
It took Schloss forty years before she was able to speak about the trauma she experienced. Since 1986, however, she has been educating people about the atrocities she lived through. Initially, she always had to take a tranquilizer when she spoke, but after decades of going around the world telling her story, she is calm and articulate. “Eventually I found my voice and I haven’t stopped since,” she said.
The most frequent questions she gets asked is about religion and hatred. For example, she has been asked if she ever considered changing her religion. “My family would never have dreamed of changing religions, and it wouldn’t have helped anyway. My father said: ‘You are born a Jew and you stay one.’”
Another question is whether she believed in God. “I didn’t believe in God or humanity, when I came out of Auschwitz. But with the birth of my first daughter I changed my view as that was a miracle after all I went through.”
In spite of her 88 years, Eva continues to be passionate about telling her story – not virtually – but in real life, for as long as she is able. With all the global suffering continuing today, she feels her contribution is essential and travels the world to share her story. Next stop is the United Nations in Geneva for Holocaust Memorial Day, followed by a six-week intensive tour in the USA.
“Everybody said, ‘Never again, Auschwitz. We have learned our lesson.’ But it looks really bad in the world, with the hatred and discrimination. When I see what ISIS do to people, I thought we were past this. I can’t understand how people can be so cruel and do it without remorse.
We have to teach people not to be bystanders. If you see injustice you have to have the courage to speak up,” she says.
“We are just one race, the human race, and we have to accept each other.”
For more information about Pardo’s film, visit www.116cameras.com.