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YOM HASHOAH FEATURE: Adding a new dimension to Holocaust testimony

Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter appears on a hologram-like interactive presentation developed by the USC Shoah Foundation. (USC Institute for Creative Technology)
Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter appears on a hologram-like interactive presentation developed by the USC Shoah Foundation. (USC Institute for Creative Technology)

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — In a dark glass building here, Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter shows that his memory is crystal clear and his voice is strong. His responses seem a bit delayed — not that different from other survivors I have known who are reluctant to speak openly about their experiences — but he’s doing just fine for a 3-D image.

In the offices of USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, Gutter, who as a teenager had survived Majdanek, the German Nazi concentration camp on the outskirts of Lublin, Poland, sounds and looks very much alive.

His hologram-like image projected on a screen is a prototype for a project of the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation called New Dimensions in Testimony. It’s an initiative to record and display 3-D, interactive testimonies that according to the organization “will preserve the dialogue between Holocaust survivors and learners far into the future.”

Shades required: Edmon J. Rodman finds a smaller version of the LED light set used for the USC Shoah Foundation's 3-D project intensely bright. (Paul Debevec)
Shades required: Edmon J. Rodman finds a smaller version of the LED light set used for the USC Shoah Foundation’s 3-D project intensely bright. (Paul Debevec)

Recalling my conversations with survivors, I wonder how a 3-D representation, no matter how well intentioned, can match the experience of making live eye contact with someone who is reaching out with the story of his or her own private hell.

“We wanted this to be as intimate as possible,” says Stephen Smith, the executive director of USC’s Shoah Foundation, a veteran of making survivor testimony available to the public.

“There is very little time,” he adds, pointing out that most survivors are now in their 80s and 90s.

The plan is to make the interactive testimonies available through 3-D installations installed in Holocaust museums and schools, allowing students and others to have a question-and-answer session with a survivor.

Smith makes it clear, however: “We are not trying to create a fantasyland experience.”

In speaking with students and accessing their needs about the Holocaust, Smith says he finds that they aren’t that interested in historical detail. Rather, they want to know “things about the human experience — if the survivors were successful, hateful, if there was justice.”

To create a new form of dialogue, Smith is planning on asking 10 survivors a battery of 500 questions to build the means for a conversation.

For the demo Paul Debevic, the associate director for graphic research at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, explains that Gutter was shot on a 26-foot spherical “light stage” with seven cameras — 50 will be used on the final — illuminated with more than 6,000 LED lights, which I could see captured his every gesture contour and wrinkle.

Later I try out a smaller set, similarly lit, and immediately need sunglasses.

Debevic, along with Ron Artstein and David Traum, who are working on the project’s interactive component, explain that a language program is being created that will cross-reference the words of a question with the recorded answers and pick the best possible response.

After donning a headset and mike — in the final version this will not be necessary — Artstein begins the conversation with Gutter.

“Can I ask you a few questions?” he asks politely and distinctly.

“I will answer any questions you might have for me,” a casual Gutter replies.

“How did you survive?” Artstein wonders.

“It was chance. It was faith. It was … it was a combination of 1,000 things,” Gutter answers.

The next question brings Gutter even more to life.

“Can you sing a song for us?” Artstein asks.

Gutter, who was once a part-time cantor, responds by singing a Polish lullaby he learned from his mother —http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=AnF630tCiEk  translated here:

“The children are going, going down the road.

The little sister and her brother they cannot contain their wonder

At how beautiful the world is.”

Then it’s my turn to put on the headset. I have come with my own questions that in speaking one on one with a survivor would seem too probing and painful to ask. But here it would be like talking to the TV, I thought, so I could dispense with the social conventions and fire away.

Yet in asking a question that would be difficult to ask even privately, I pause.

“Do you believe in God?” I ask finally, after pushing a laptop button.

“Yes. I believe there is a power higher than human beings and I’m not quite sure what it is,” Gutter answers, suddenly sounding and appearing much more present than a projection.

“We are looking to get a suspension of disbelief,” says Debevec, describing what fiction writers need to achieve so their work is believable.

The overall effect is better than the cloying slickness of Siri and more relatable than the countless holographic movie appearances of gauzy futuristic presidents or villains.

Children will love the interactivity. But deniers will hate it, as testimony from survivors like Gutter challenges their own projections.

As Gutter continues to answer my question about God, the 3-D captures the fullness of his arm motions and earnestness.

“You are allowed to stand up and question,” he says.

(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at edmojace@gmail.com.)