Holocaust holograms: how survivors' stories live on through new technology

People trying to preserve the memories of the Holocaust are in a race against time, while the numbers of young Canadians who are unaware what happened are high. The answer might lie in new technology and media.

With survivors aging and dying, modern media provide a way to connect with youth

Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter, right, and his wife Dorothy stand next to his interactive virtual self at the Dimensions in Testimony exhibit at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. (USC Shoah Foundation/Illinois Holocaust Museum)

As Holocaust Education Week wraps up, those trying to preserve the memories of the genocide that took the lives of six million Jews during the Second World War are in a race against time.

The survivors, whose powerful testimonies provided younger generations with first-hand accounts, are getting older and dying. Meanwhile, a study done this year by the Azrieli Foundation suggests one in five Canadian young people have either not heard of the Holocaust or aren't sure what it is.

The solution, for many individuals and organizations, has been to supplement traditional records such as memoirs and documentaries with presentations in new media and technology. 

"Our world is changing, and we have to meet people where they are if we're really going to have an impact," says Kori Street, a Canadian and a senior director at University of Southern California's Shoah Foundation.

The foundation, established by filmmaker Steven Spielberg and dedicated to preserving the stories of the victims of the Holocaust and other genocides, has been working on a series of interactive two- and three-dimensional testimonies of  survivors. 

"We're losing these individuals," said Street. "We wanted to give that ability to ask survivors questions available in perpetuity to students in this generation and the next."

'We must make every effort'

Pinchas Gutter understands the urgency. An 87-year-old Holocaust survivor with bright blue eyes and a broad smile, Gutter, who lives in Toronto, flew to Nova Scotia this week to make a public address at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. He also talked to several groups of school children.

It's busy, exhausting work, both physically and emotionally, but it's Gutter's life's purpose.

Born to a Jewish family in Poland, Gutter was just 10 when the Nazis killed his parents and his twin sister in a single day, leaving him alone in the Majdanek concentration camp.

An elderly man smiles inside a home
Gutter, 87, in his Toronto home. A tireless educator who has spoken to thousands of schoolchildren about his experiences, Gutter has also participated in high-tech projects to immortalize his testimony. (Nigel Hunt/CBC)

"It's so important that we must make every effort and do as much as we can and tell the world as much as we can, to try and impart that knowledge, that first-hand witness knowledge, while the time is still there."

Still, Gutter knows he won't be able to bear witness forever. So he volunteered for several high-tech projects to translate the power of that testimony. He was the first of 22 Holocaust survivors so far to sit down for the Shoah Foundation's Dimensions in Testimony.

Recording the three-dimensional  volumetric video meant Gutter had to sit still, for hours at a time, as more than 100 cameras recorded multiple angles.

Gutter's testimony is interactive; during the recording, he answered over 1,000 questions museum visitors might have. They ranged from simple: "What is your favourite colour?" to more complicated, like "How did your rebuild your life after the war?"

Since 2017, these interactive testimonies have travelled to Holocaust museums around North America, including  the Neuberger Centre in Toronto. Most places show them as high-definition two-dimensional video on a flat screen, though some have also shown them as "Pepper's Ghosts," hologram-like projections many people find particularly affecting.

The plan is to show them as true holograms once that technology is widely available at museums, which Kori Street calls "future-proofing."

Viewers in the theatre of the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum interact with Max Glauben, a Holocaust survivor from Dallas. (Amanda Lynn Photography/Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum)

"It's not about technology for technology's sake. They connect with the human story," says Street. Museum visitors "forget that it's a system, they are talking to a human being, they are asking someone questions." 

Kori Street, Canadian-born senior director of programs and operation at USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, stands next to an interactive testimony video of Gutter. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Indeed, at the Fisher Museum in Los Angeles, where visitors can see Gutter's interactive testimony, university students who asked him questions were impressed.

Celine Lai welled up as she watched the virtual Gutter wipe away tears when she asked him if he had any regrets. He answered that he missed his family and was particularly distraught that he could not remember the face of his twin sister Sabina.

"He expressed emotion on his face, and when you listen to him, I feel like he affected my emotions. I was really impressed with his answers; you can feel his love for his sister," said Lai.

Challenges of new technology

Not all experiments with modern media to translate the horror of the Holocaust have been equally successful.

Earlier this year, Israeli tech enterpreneur Mati Kochavi poured millions of dollars into a project called Eva Stories. A series of 70 Instagram stories, it was a fictionalized account of the life of Eva Heyman, a real teen who perished in the Holocaust. The premise was "What if a girl in the Holocaust had Instagram?"

So in these mini-movies, the actor portraying Heyman wears 1940s clothes but takes selfies in a park and sends emojis to a boy she has a crush on. 

The project divided opinions. Many praised its ingenuity in emphasizing the similarity between a teen Holocaust victim and teens today, and the fictional Instagram account of Eva had 200,000 followers on the day it launched.

But some were outraged at what they saw as disrespect, with one critic arguing "the path from 'Eva's Story' to selfie-taking at the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau is short and steep."

Street agrees that using technology to tackle such sensitive subject matter has its drawbacks. She says Dimensions in Testimony was initially "met with great suspicion. 'What are you doing? How are you doing this? This will never work.'"

She and her colleagues at the Shoah Foundation have learned, she said, how to be transparent about how they're using the technology.

"This is a system. This is a testimony. This is a different way of you being able to interact with it in the same way that a fictionalized story using social media, Instagram, you have to understand the medium of Instagram."

Gutter has not yet committed his story to social media but he has participated in a critically hailed virtual reality project called The Last Goodbye. In it, he returns to Poland to take viewers on a harrowing journey inside Majdanek.

"You may be wearing earphones and goggles, but at the same time, you're actually walking with the person. You're in Majdanek, you're not in the room where you think you are, because you lose yourself," says Gutter.

"People don't read as much as they used to do, people don't listen very much, they don't interact, so the only way to do it is use new technology to be able to impart everything that you want them to do."

Gutter shares his story with Azrieli Foundation's Elin Beaumont and schoolchildren in Halifax on Nov. 4, during Holocaust Education Week. (Robert Short/CBC)


Deana Sumanac-Johnson

Senior Education Reporter

Deana Sumanac-Johnson is a senior education reporter for CBC News. Appearing on The National and CBC Radio, she has previously reported on arts and entertainment, and worked as a current affairs producer.