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We’re losing the last generation of Holocaust survivors. Can AI keep their stories alive?

Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter, who's featured in the project, prepares for filming.
Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter, who's featured in the project, prepares for filming.

As of 2020, only 400,000 Holocaust survivors were still alive.

Archivists, historians, and family members are working to capture their stories before they’re gone.

The University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation is taking recording these survivor testimonies one step further.

With the help of AI, anyone can have an interactive conversation with a survivor online, even after their death. Users can ask questions and get an answer in real-time.

CBS News reports:

“We had a lot of pushback on this project,” [Stephen Smith, then-executive director of USC’s Shoah Foundation] said. “‘Is it the right thing to do? What about the wellbeing of the survivors? Are we trying to keep them alive beyond their deaths?’ Everyone had questions except for one group of people, the survivors themselves, who said, ‘Where do I sign up? I would like to participate in this project.’ No barriers to entry.”

The first survivor they signed up to do a trial run was a man named Pinchas Gutter, who was born in Poland and deported to the Majdanek concentration camp with his parents and twin sister Sabina at the age of 11. He is the only one who survived. They flew Gutter from his home in Toronto to Los Angeles, and asked him to sit inside a giant lattice-like dome.

“Yeah, I call it a sphere,” Gutter said. “They call it a dome. And then eventually, it was called a bubble.”

A bubble surrounding him with lights and more than 20 cameras. The goal was to future-proof the interviews so that as technology advances and 3D, hologram-like projection becomes the norm, they’ll have all the necessary angles.

[…] Since Pinchas Gutter was filmed, the Shoah Foundation has recorded interviews with dozens more Holocaust survivors, each for a full week. And they’ve shrunk the set-up required, so they can take a mobile rig on the road to record survivors close to where they live.  They’ve deliberately chosen interview subjects with all different wartime experiences. Survivors of Auschwitz, hidden children, and as we saw last fall in New Jersey, 93-year-old Alan Moskin, who isn’t a holocaust survivor. He was a liberator.

We talk with folks behind the project — and meet Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter.

Copyright 2022 WAMU 88.5

Kathryn Fink