Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Do Holocaust Survivors Dream of Electric Sheep?

The profound weirdness of the Shoah Foundation’s hologram effort

by
Matthew Fishbane
April 21, 2020
Yoshi Sodeoka; original photo @uscshoahfoundation
Yoshi Sodeoka; original photo @uscshoahfoundation
Yoshi Sodeoka; original photo @uscshoahfoundation
Yoshi Sodeoka; original photo @uscshoahfoundation
collection
This article is part of In the Shadow of the Shoah.
See the full collection →︎
Tablet Top Ten 2020: An entirely subjective list, presented in no particular order, of our 10 favorite articles from Tablet’s Arts & Letters, News, Science, History, Israel & Middle East, and Sports sections in the tumultuous year 2020. “Favorite” here means somewhere at the nexus of these pieces’ intrinsic merits and the measurable ways that readers engaged with them. If you caught them when they came out, they bear re-reading. If you missed them, you’re in for a treat. We feature them, two a day, this week, so you can peruse at your holiday leisure, and remember—or try to forget—a year that was like no other.
Tablet Top Ten 2020: An entirely subjective list, presented in no particular order, of our 10 favorite articles from Tablet’s Arts & Letters, News, Science, History, Israel & Middle East, and Sports sections in the tumultuous year 2020. “Favorite” here means somewhere at the nexus of these pieces’ intrinsic merits and the measurable ways that readers engaged with them. If you caught them when they came out, they bear re-reading. If you missed them, you’re in for a treat. We feature them, two a day, this week, so you can peruse at your holiday leisure, and remember—or try to forget—a year that was like no other.
“To use special effects and gimmicks to describe the indescribable is to me morally objectionable. Worse: it is indecent.” —Elie Wiesel

Eva Kor’s Double

Eva Kor is still alive. She’s in a small theater in the basement of a Holocaust museum outside Chicago on an early April night last year. She wears a luminescent blue sweater vest over an embroidered, wide-collared white shirt, a mismatching blue neck scarf, and a tomboyish, wiglike bowl cut that ices a pointed cupcake face. Her heart pumps blood. Her diminutive 85-year-old frame is folded into a seat in the front row, awaiting the evening’s entertainment, which is her, and her hologram.

Eva Kor is a Holocaust survivor. She is obviously more than that but for the purposes of our story she is mostly that: a twin to Miriam, who lived with one of Eva’s kidneys for many years but is now dead of cancer. Both sisters were orphaned at Auschwitz where they were inhumanely experimented on by Dr. Josef Mengele. Born in Romania, Eva eventually went on to found a small Holocaust museum in Terre Haute, Indiana, which she named CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors), and which she uses to tell the story of the Mengele twins, mostly to school groups, and preach forgiveness of the Nazis, with the goal of creating “a world free from hatred and genocide.”

The question of whether this mantle of survivorship was hers to take up or was imposed on her by chance, fate, the arrogant Nazi project that sought totalitarian control over fate, or some combination thereof, is an open one. Either way, you would be hard-pressed to find a more potent and dedicated example of the American ideal of the capital H capital S Holocaust Survivor than Eva Mozes Kor. Google her and you will see her identified as such in the many references to books, stories, documentaries, news segments, articles and other forms of her life story. In the mid-1960s, Eva published Echoes from Auschwitz: Dr. Mengele’s Twins: The Story of Eva and Miriam Mozes,and after the landmark NBC miniseries Holocaust aired in 1978, she brought out of the shadows the other Mengele twins. The YA version of her autobiography is titled Surviving the Angel of Death. In 1992, and again earlier this month, she was interviewed by 60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl. In 2003, her museum was firebombed; the culprit was never found. She is the subject of The Girl Who Forgave Nazis, CNN’s Incredible Survivors, and the Deutsche Welle documentary Victim of Nazi Twin Experiments in Auschwitz. Most recently, she starred in the award-winning documentary Eva.

Eva Kor is also one of 24 Holocaust survivors who have undergone a rigorous, historian-led, weeklong data “capture” in Southern California and elsewhere, during which she answered more than 2,000 questions while sitting inside a green-screened light stage surrounded by a dome containing 22 cameras. The grueling interview covered all aspects of her life, thoughts, feelings, values, and hopes before, during, and after World War II. This material was then compiled and processed into a high-definition interactive visual display that allows users to ask questions of the projection, and for the projection to play back an appropriate answer, through a mix of artificial intelligence, keywording, machine learning, and speech recognition—much as you might ask things of Siri or Alexa, if Siri or Alexa existed and had survived Nazi tortures. Each of the replies Eva provided during her 30 hours of interviews were matched by humans with more than two dozen variations on potential questions people might think to ask her, which leads to a seemingly inexhaustible supply of 30,000 question-and-answer pairings for Eva to provide to the museums or institutions that employ the proprietary hardware and license her content for a monthly fee.

Though these projections have been mislabeled “holograms” in the popular press, they are in fact, for now, “interactive biographies.” But their intention is holographic in nature, in that the goal is to present a simulacrum of a living person to whom future generations can direct questions and obtain firsthand testimony of the Holocaust. The more lifelike these projections can be made to seem, the more likely they are to “engage,” in the parlance of museum education, the attention of younger generations, sparking their curiosity and interest in learning a history that grows more distant by the day. The richer the data set collected from this person—the more that is harvested and recorded of their memories, and of their bodies, facial expressions, and mannerisms—the more they can be adapted to yet-to-be-invented technologies and thus become, in their way, immortal.

Tonight is Eva’s holographic premiere, and the room is full of patrons of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, which according to its lobby displays is “The Third Largest Holocaust Museum in the World!” The museum’s 40-seat Abe & Ida Cooper Survivor Stories Experience “holographic theater” darkens amid a nervous generalized murmur. A light rigging washes the cube with focused high-contrast beams that make the space glow a cold midnight blue. The images of an introductory film appear in the middle, hovering and layered—this is not a 3D movie, but something else.

A classic Hollywood-narrator baritone cantillates: “You will have the opportunity to meet and engage in a dialogue with a Holocaust survivor, someone who has survived one of history’s darkest chapters.” Music swells out of a powerful surround-sound speaker system in all corners of the stadium-tiered room as the rudiments of 1930s and ’40s world history are recounted … “Hitler comes to power” … “Kristallnacht!” with the sound of breaking glass as floating images of Jewish storefronts pan and zoom … a tonal shift in the music to something more upbeat, mixed with sounds of air raids: “the first European capital is freed of Nazi tyranny!” … “Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children found a way to survive the ghettos and camps,” the narrator says with swelling feeling. “Others hid. Still others lived in plain sight under false identities. These survivors have a story to tell. And feel a responsibility so those who didn’t survive will not be forgotten.”

The narrator shifts into a more didactic mode: “Now you will meet one of these survivors, virtually. You will have an opportunity to ask questions, to learn about their lives: how they survived. What happened to their friends and families. And how these survivors rebuilt their lives.” The intro film fades out over the sound of a ringing clarinet and plaintive hopeful strings.

Eva appears, on stage, wearing an outfit strikingly similar to what she has on in the audience. She seems to float just off the floor, though she is seated in a red padded chair tall enough to offset the foreshortening of her thighs. From any seat, the projection, perfectly lit, offers an illusion of 3D dimensionality countered with a faintly pixelated transparency, with hints of old RCA TV striation. Eva’s white hair blooms in a circle above her head. In her blue polyester pantsuit and waist-length neck scarf, she could be any of our grandmas, maybe a hobbyist painter or bridge player. Though ghostly, she is definitely there, in repose, looking straight ahead: a patient, open, welcoming elder, neither smiling too much nor too severe, just sitting there and waiting for you.

“Hello, Eva,” a docent at a podium near the stage says, clearly and carefully into her microphone, which feeds into the Eva machine.

Eva answers: “Hi, how are you?”

The room giggles nervously. The docent asks if anyone would like to ask a question. An audience member suggests one, which the docent repeats into her microphone, with a flatlander’s open vowels:

“When did you start telling your story?”

While Eva watches from the front row of the audience, Eva’s ghost recalls with near-human processing speed how she asked her local NBC affiliate in Indiana if the 1978 docudrama Holocaust was going to be aired where she lived, which led to a segment about her on the local TV news, which led to her first visit to a junior high school, “and I have not stopped speaking since.”

“Can you tell us about your life in Auschwitz?” the docent asks the floating projection.

“The vorst conditions that you can ever imagine in a horror film, were actually real in Auschwitz,” Eva says, her Romanian accent lingering in the voiced esses and tight syllables. “The barracks were filthy, infested with lice and rats. The supervisors were trained—and some of them took to enjoy—to be mean. We were starving to death continuously. On top of that, we were injected with lots of unknown germs, diseases, and they took a lot of blood from us. There were no parents, so we had to rely on our own inner strength. When I saw children on the latrine, and I realized that children were actually dying here, so I made a silent promise to myself that Miriam and I would walk off of this camp alive.”

“Can you describe Dr. Mengele?”

“The labs?” Eva says, before going on to describe the location where she spent most of her time at Auschwitz. The docent let her finish and then tried again.

“What do you remember about Dr. Mengele?” leaning in to the keywords.

“Mengele was very present,” Eva said, to the room’s relief, “and he had a gorgeous face, a movie star face. Five-foot-nine, dark hair, and the eyes, when I looked into his eyes, I could see nothing but evil.”

“What does forgiveness mean to you?”

“Forgiveness … means an act of self-healing, an act of self-liberation, and an act of self-empowerment.” Her speech has the measured cadence of performance, not conversation, but then she asks, “Now, do I have time for a longer answer?”

Eva Kor

Eva Kor@uscshoahfoundation

The audience laughs. Over more than 12 minutes, Eva details the long voyage that brought her from the gas chambers, to reuniting with her kapo at Auschwitz, to writing a “forgiveness letter” to Dr. Mengele himself, even though the Angel of Death had already died of a stroke while swimming in Brazil. “Of course, I was greatly criticized for all that.”

“What kind of emotional problems did you face after liberation?”

Eva knows the answer. She realized after many years of lecturing that speaking in public was also a kind of “self-therapy.” For seven years, she would end every lecture with “a very strange statement: I would say, ‘I am standing up here looking down at that little girl and telling her story.’” But in 1985, she was at one of her talks, describing the separation from her mother, which she had done many times, and she began sobbing uncontrollably. “I was very embarrassed. I had never cried before.” It started happening lecture after lecture, until she was forced, she says, to confront some buried awfulness. “Never again did I say that I’m standing up here looking down at this little girl and telling her story. Because that little girl and me became one.”

The conversation, between Eva’s projection and the audience, through the docent, carries on in this way until the lights come up, and Eva disappears.

The patrons move to the social hall for champagne and light refreshments before the evening continues with a panel on the Future of Holocaust Education in the context of “the end of survivors”—the euphemism used to describe the looming existential crisis ahead for Holocaust museums: the inevitable death of the last Jew ever victimized by the Nazis. Susan Abrams, the museum’s director, visits with the living Eva—“Eva No. 1,” as she was being called in the theater by her well-meaning entourage—to ask about the new house Eva had moved into: a single-story building, for her walker.

“I need to take a selfie,” Abrams declares. “I realized, I don’t have a picture with you, Eva.”

She asks if Eva is ready. Eva looks up. Abrams counts to three. The phone flashes and emits the recorded sound of a single-lens reflex camera.

“You look great. How are you feeling?” Abrams asks.

“So-so,” Eva No. 1 replies. “I cannot stand or walk. I told my doctor, you operated on my heart, not on my leg. How come my leg don’t work?” She adds, “The hologram is crazy.”

It occurs to me, watching this unfold, that Eva No. 1 was already an identical twin, with a real person who also survived. The hologram has now twinned her again. She had also said that the other half of her had died when she forgave herself, meaning her younger self, the little girl being experimented on by Mengele. “I have the right to be happy, and to be free, what they have done to me,” she says. She is right, of course. And in this way all these fractal multiplicities of Evas, living and past, argue with each other over the meaning of having survived the Holocaust.

“I felt if anyone wants to understand about Auschwitz, they should experience Auschwitz,” Eva tells me, noticeably tired from the evening’s exertions. For a moment the strangeness of her phrase flummoxes me. Understand Auschwitz? Experience Auschwitz? Through what methods do you propose we do this, Eva? But I neglect to ask her about it right then and there, and four months after that premiere, in Krakow, Poland, Eva Kor died.

The Shoah Foundation

The initiative that created Eva No. 2 and the 23 other Jewish ghosts is the work of a unit of the Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California. The project was originally titled New Dimensions in Testimony, but the “New” has since been dropped, not because the program has inevitably aged, but because it is more aptly considered yet another in the many “dimensions” of Holocaust remembrance dating back to what is likely the first mediated Holocaust testimony ever collected: British Pathé newsreel footage from 75 years ago this week, April 24, 1945, of Hella Goldstein in Bergen-Belsen. Standing in front of an open pit full of emaciated corpses nine days after liberation, Goldstein looked into the lens of a film camera and said to the future, in accented German, “Mein Name ist Goldstein.” It seems a matter of life and death: “And what I have to tell was the last thing I survived,” she says. “Danke.” Of course, the most telling testimony was in the mass grave behind her, unextractable and unrecordable by technological means—though one day who knows.

The voices and faces and altered bodies of the millions of Jews who didn’t die at the hands of the Nazis are a fundamental part of humanity’s herculean attempts to document and to whatever extent grasp the global events leading up to and through WWII and its aftermath. Survivors have been telling their stories for a long time, with varying degrees of specificity, openness, truth, emotion, and memory, for a myriad of purposes ranging from the personal to the political. No Jew-adjacent person alive today needs a reminder of the millions, if not billions or more, of artifacts describing, documenting, or attempting to relay every facet of the experience of the 20th century’s greatest crime.

The sheer scale of this output is bewildering and disorienting yet in many ways glorious and life-affirming, a three-quarter-century achievement nearly as constructive as the Holocaust was destructive: Memorials, education centers, documentaries, feature movies, TV series, art films, books, autobiographies, biographies, historical novels, histories, painting, performance, opera, dance, theater, poetry, scholarly articles and books, photojournalism, photographic reinterpretations, dioramas, curricula, oral histories, visual histories, architecture, preservation and conservation and restoration efforts, hundreds of museums entirely dedicated to the subject, and of course the objects, body parts, voices, locations, and documents of the Nazi project and of its victims in libraries, universities, dedicated archives, and collections. For the People of the Book, for whom the primordial blueprint is represented as having a single earthly manifestation in the Sefer Torah, the pursuit of the total documentation of a totalizing attempt to wipe them from existence is a particular irony.

This has been USC Shoah Foundation’s mission, in a way, the problem that has sustained it as a researchworthy endeavor: the very Californian problem of assembling, organizing, and making accessible overwhelming masses of information, and then transforming it into consumable quasi-entertainment products that invite engagement and reward search. From 1994 to early 2000, in a massive effort funded by the success of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, undertaken by an army of grad students, volunteers, historians, videographers, and technicians, about 50,000 visual testimonies were collected. Following that, USC continued to record at a reduced pace, and coordinated access to the other smaller testimonial archives at Jewish historical centers in Florida, Houston, New York, Canada, and elsewhere. In a not-uncontroversial universalizing gesture, they have since added much smaller collections of oral and visual histories related to other genocides in Armenia, Nanjing, Cambodia, Guatemala, Myanmar, South Sudan, Rwanda, and the Central African Republic, though the collection has yet to include the Yazidi people of Eastern Syria, or the Kurds of Anfal, or a number of other claimants to the designation.

The Shoah Foundation’s main offices on the fourth floor of USC’s Leavey Library are a sunlit 10,000 square feet overlooking a manicured quad. Inside are 115,000 hours—more than 13 years’ worth—of people talking about their experiences of genocide. Along with their core scholarly and educational “end-users,” Shoah also caters to the wider public, amateur genealogists, historians, museum curators, “content producers,” and teachers.

After a multimillion-dollar expansion tied to the 25th anniversary and reissue of Schindler’s List in 2018, the entry hall is now the George and Irina Schaeffer Hall for Genocide Study, with interactive, wall-size multimedia displays, illuminated soft-fade portraits of a diverse collection of survivors of a diverse collection of genocides. Past this leads you into a second antechamber, the Jona Goldrich Center for Digital Storytelling, with a touch-screen viewing station, a “Witness Waterfall” of gently cascading, interactive video highlights from the VHA, and Nicola Anthony’s steel sculpture “Remembering Our Father’s Words,” which shapes textual snippets from the archive into a spherizoid hung high under an atrium window, very much in the manner of an Episcopalian church or a Palm Beach funeral parlor. The dual antechamber was specifically designed to move visitors “from darkness to the light.”

Through his representatives, founder Steven Spielberg declined to comment here, but his imprint is all over his Shoah Foundation endeavors—and not only in the large sums of money, supplemented by philanthropic donations and the vast coffers of USC, that Schindler’s List has earned in a quarter century, which have largely been reinvested into the institute’s array of storytelling projects.

Shoah shares a larger thematic coherence with the rest of Spielberg’s oeuvre: his vocal appreciation for “the power of storytelling” and the keystone roles of redemption and uplift therein, and his optimistic belief in the ability of Americans to listen, learn, hope, and change. Schindler’s List is a quintessentially American Holocaust movie that manages to be about people surviving, not dying. Spielberg’s period-piece films and many of his entertainments have long explored questions of aging and eternal youth (E.T., A.I., etc.), envisioned technology as a danger to the wisdom of the individual human heart (Close Encounters, Minority Report), and showcased an unflagging interest in World War II, as well as in American racial and social justice—and in Nazis and other boogeyman-style predators.

Stephen D. Smith, the Finci-Viterbi endowed executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation, presides over this wing of the Spielberg enterprise. A 53-year-old British son of a Methodist minister, Smith earned a degree in theology and in 1991 went on a transformative trip to Yad Vashem. He and his brother subsequently created in Nottinghamshire the first—and still only—dedicated Holocaust museum in England. He later wrote Never Again! Yet Again! A Personal Struggle with the Holocaust and Genocide, and won many humanitarian awards and honors. In 2009, he arrived at Shoah, where he led an ambitious expansion at the foundation. In 2014, he was rewarded with a title underwritten by the Jewish founder of Qualcomm, the inventor of the Viterbi algorithm that makes cellular communication possible.

Yoshi Sodeoka; original photos @uscshoahfoundation

As the public face of Shoah, Smith’s discourse is polished, confident, and aphoristically insightful. His oval, bald head, proportioned by sharp black-framed glasses over Nordic blue eyes and a base of speckled stubble, give him the air of a lapsed Anglican priest, hopeful but world-weary. His main point to me, on the day we sat face to face in a luxurious white-leather-seated conference room, was that there is no such thing as “new media”—there is only media. Having answered questions for years about the appropriateness of the Dimensions in Testimony project and its many apparent risks, he was a step ahead of my skepticism.

“This is not a technology project,” he said. “It’s not a sacralization project. It’s not an immortality project. It’s a testimony project.”

Back when he was studying genocide stories from a theological perspective, Smith wondered whether some kind of particularly American religious experience was emerging in the 1990s around the Holocaust. You read a canon of sacred texts by Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Charlotte Delbo, and Anne Frank’s diary, you recognize and celebrate the saintlike quality of your grandparents the Holocaust survivors, and then you go on a pilgrimage to Auschwitz. In this manner you go through a kind of conversion that makes you into a true believer, which also changes your Judaism into a semisecular sanctification of martyrdom, which in America is a kind of assimilation. The living witnesses are the apostles who spread the gospel, around which arises a New Testament. The further away from the suffering event everyone gets, the more doctrinal everyone becomes. “I liken it a little bit to the emergence of Christianity,” Smith said.

All of this was happening right around the time when Schindler’s List lit a candle to redemption in the Shoah, which also coincided with video technology no longer being the sole preserve of film or TV studios and others who were able to purchase and operate large, expensive cameras. The arrival of home video meant that every Holocaust survivor had the ability to record a full 90-minute videotape about their lives—a technologically driven development that led in turn to the creation of archives of testimony so vast that no one person could actually view or see or hear all of it.

The democratization of Holocaust narratives ran counter to the drive toward canonization—“The Gospel of the Holocaust According to Elie Wiesel,” as Smith called it. In the new survivor testimony vulgate, everybody’s voice was equal, every story as important. There was no longer one single “correct” reading of the ne plus ultra of human cruelty and suffering.

No wonder America fell for it so hard, a Protestant Reformation of a holy, infallible historical doctrine. What’s remarkable is how widely this sacralization metastasized in Jewish institutions. “I would think of it in terms of it beatifying the survivor,” said one of the curators of the Visual History Archive, an affable Mancunian who has probably spent more time with these 50,000 Holocaust survivors (in video form) than any other living person, cataloging, tagging, and otherwise mining the material for valuable nuggets over the course of two decades. “Most of the Holocaust oral history organizations, all were predicated on the idea of doing an interview—or the interview with a survivor—an unquestioning assumption that having a person for those two hours on that particular day, you’re gonna get the story, the truth of history. I think it’s very challengeable.”

By this logic, interactive holograms are perhaps a tacit acknowledgement that we’re either so overwhelmed, or so bored, by the archive that the memory of the Holocaust is no longer that dangerous. The question is: Are we listening to survivors anymore, or have we tuned them out?

Interacting with Dimensions in Testimony doesn’t produce a coherent narrative. It is a disjointed, alienating, deeply uninformative, poetic, slapstick, and sometimes beautiful experience—but it isn’t a story, the way a two-hour testimony recorded to VHS, or a survivor’s lecture in a classroom or a Spielberg film, is. One Holocaust scholar called the interactive biographies nothing more than a form of data visualization—a kind of glammed-up Siri-fied keyword search. Smith himself said, “One might conceive of this as creating sort of apparitions of the past.” Over and over I asked if the Dimensions in Testimony programs were a difference of degree or of kind: Was this a truly new thing?

One day not long ago, Stephen Smith was presenting at a conference for nonprofits at Oxford University, and he and his team had brought along one of the early examples of Dimensions in Testimony, which was programmed with Aaron Elster, a Holocaust survivor from Chicago who was hid in an attic for two years as a child. They had set up virtual Aaron in a little booth, and visitors were interacting with him, asking him questions that he was answering from his life-size flat screen. Later that evening, Smith received a text message informing him that, back home in Illinois, Aaron Elster had died.

The next morning, he went to the conference venue, and switched on Aaron’s TV. Aaron appeared, as he always had, life-size, floating amiably in the dark background of the rectangle, in approachable repose. Smith went to the touchpad and asked, “Aaron, what do you want your legacy to be?”

Aaron then spoke to Stephen, now finally from beyond the grave: “I want young people when they come to my testimony to know that they should never give up in the face of adversity.”

Smith thought about it, and decided this was permission to ask him something else, and so he and his colleague did for some time, experiencing a morbid but emotionally powerful test of their willingness to let a dead man’s projection be interacted with so soon after his passing. (Virtual Aaron did not sit shiva, and no black curtains were hung over his mirror.)

Later, as the crowds filtered back in and continued to interact with Aaron, a visitor asked, as they often do with DiT projections, “Oh, is he still alive?” And, “When did he die?”

Smith answered, “Yesterday.”

The visitor took that in, and then said, “Can I ask him something else?”

Meanwhile, back in Chicago, the rabbi in charge of Aaron’s funeral went to the Skokie museum, where another copy of his interactive display lives, to meet Aaron for the first time, to get to know him a little and help him prepare for his ceremonial duties. Smith spoke to the Elster family that evening, sending his regrets for not being able to attend the burial the next day. “But I want you to know,” he told the Elsters, “that Aaron had a fabulous day today.”

A Black Hole

“You may think you know now how the victims lived and died, but you do not,” wrote Elie Wiesel in 1978, complaining about the same NBC docudrama that had spurred Eva Kor’s arrival to survivordom. “Auschwitz cannot be explained nor can it be visualized. Whether culmination or aberration of history, the Holocaust transcends history. Everything about it inspires fear and leads to despair: The dead are in possession of a secret that we, the living, are neither worthy of nor capable of recovering.” Over and over, America did not heed that message. Instead, it institutionalized and sanctified its opposite: that the living, not the dead, have the true message of the Holocaust within them. They and they alone carry the greater meaning, which is muddled with “uplift,” “overcoming,” and, most callous of all, “survival.”

And so the survivor became our golem. America placed a scroll in their mouths and anointed them bearers of the moral authority to embody and relay their indelible experience, as well as those of their lost co-religionists. We asked them to speak up, when many of them had no interest in doing so. We built museums to them, and they built museums to themselves, even though they were still living, as if they—their lives—were strange works of art. They saw the attention it brought, and the seemingly edifying effect it had on the local and national ethos of our youths. Museums and monuments sprang up anywhere Holocaust survivors had wound up in America, sometimes in response to political events, such as the neo-Nazi marches in Skokie, Illinois, and sometimes out of what can seem in the wrong light as a kind of self-congratulatory communal vanity, such as in Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, St. Petersburg, St. Louis, Lincoln, Albuquerque, Richmond, and Terre Haute.

The idea that a museum is the place to enshrine the suffering of an entire people is one that I’ve never fully understood. And even less that the faces of those museums should be accidents of history, those who happened to survive what was meant to kill them. Look! the survivors told us. Not everyone dies in this story! Some of them even become the owners of car dealerships, invent algorithms that power our cellphones, write books, wear cute outfits, crack jokes, volunteer, and have dozens of great-grandkids. They own Cadillacs with power steering, restaurants, whole businesses, and second homes in Stowe or Palm Springs or on the shores of Lake Michigan. Sure, many others may end up destitute and abandoned by their peers, but they are alive. As Eva Kor’s hologram continues to say from beyond the grave: If you die, you let the Nazis win.

Aaron Elster

Aaron Elster@uscshoahfoundation

To be fair, most Holocaust survivors living in America never joined the cause. Some were too poor and abandoned or broken to stand up in front of school children. Some couldn’t care less about communicating their personal suffering. Some just wanted to live their own lives. The curricula we wrote for our schools asked survivors to incarnate the myths and show us some real-life, behind-the-curtain-of-Oz, humanoid version of victimhood, rewriting a bleak tale of horrific and nearly total destruction of an entire human planet into a story about some weird kind of redemption. It was, broadly, a romantic gesture that captured the American capacity for reinvention, for overcoming hardship, and for expiating trauma, while at the same time exploiting it. Could we find no other way for our youth to “engage with” the Holocaust except by cynically spoon-feeding them a fabricated, synthetic sense of hope?

What our kids needed wasn’t to meet and greet the living, I felt. What our kids needed was an encounter with the blackest death, a roiling ball of blood, spittle, screams, shit, spent ammo, pesticide, falsehoods, mud, leftover leather shoes, syringes, hate, collective insanity, railroad tracks, fear, betrayal, guilt, shame, lice, and raw hunger. In its interactive, virtual reality form, this black hole should grow with every button anyone presses, no matter which button it is—none of the buttons should correspond to any command—and swallow them whole, and then the kids can write essays about “what it was like in the Holocaust,” or how they plan to “apply its lessons” in defense of universal human rights.

Meanwhile, did no one stop to think that survivors would one day—not survive? Of course not; they had lived through humankind’s cruelest expression, the pinnacle of modernity’s technological capacity for wholesale murder! They must be immortal. And if they are not, then, by daggum, American techno-ingenuity should find a way to make them so.

Americans who visit Auschwitz (and there are many) may note a significant contrast in the European approach. When I was last in Birkenau I watched a white-lab-coated conservator painstakingly treat the pile of rubble that was once one of the crematoria, to remove a cement-eating fungus that would have ruined the ruins. True, you can visit the memorial virtually. But when I asked a museum official there what they planned to do after all the survivors are gone, he looked at me like I was stupid and said, “When the survivors are dead, that will be it.”

Pepper’s Ghost

The goal is to develop interactive 3-D exhibits in which learners can have simulated, educational conversations with survivors though the fourth dimension of time. Years from now, long after the last survivor has passed on, the New Dimensions in Testimony project can provide a path to enable young people to listen to a survivor and ask their own questions directly, encouraging them, each in their own way, to reflect on the deep and meaningful consequences of the Holocaust.—ICT’s New Dimensions in Testimony Project Description

On Christmas Eve, 1862, John Henry Pepper, a chemist and science performer, presented the stage show illusion “The Ghost” at the Royal Polytechnic Institution in London, where he was director. Professor Pepper’s public educational lectures included experiments, magic lanterns, and common stage illusions, and in this case he was deploying an improvement on the “Dircksian Phantasmagoria,” developed by Henry Dircks in 1858, which involved using a large angled glass and lighting to create the appearance of “insubstantial” figures on stage. The illusion became hugely popular in the late 19th century, feeding the hunger of the seance-crazed and spiritualism-mad audiences of the time—applied, for example, to a licensed adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Christmas story. Pepper later published a compendium of designs, drawings, explications, and stage lore of his bag of tricks under the title The True History of the Ghost, and All about Metempsychosis, which did little to explain the afterlife (or shore up his sagging finances) but did likely contribute to the ghost acquiring his name.

Though first posited by the scientist Giambattista della Porta in 1584 (“How we may see in a Chamber things that are not”), today the illusion known as Pepper’s Ghost is the technology behind teleprompters, Tupac’s famous appearance with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg at Coachella in 2012, and Michael Jackson’s postmortem cameo at the Billboard Music Awards two years later. Disneyland has employed Pepper’s Ghosts at its Haunted Mansion and in Pinocchio’s Daring Journey, where the Blue Fairy lives, in Fantasyland. Its verisimilitude depends largely on the quality of its source.

Nearly a century after Dircks and Pepper, a Hungarian Jew named Dennis Gabor, who had fled Nazi Germany to England in the 1930s, took the illusion several steps further, when he conceived of holography, just after the war, for which he later won the Nobel Prize in physics. It took the invention of the laser beam as a coherent light source in 1960 to realize Gabor’s idea of a photographic recording of a light field. For a few decades, commercial holography never much progressed beyond the gimmick Earth Day National Geographic cover or trippy stoner toys, but when lasers became much more widespread and inexpensive, the technique gained use in a wide variety of applications, from art and microscopy to data storage. Unlike a photograph, a hologram represents a recording of information regarding the totality of the light that came from the original scene, as opposed to just the original scene itself. This is the “holo-” or whole, from the Greek ὅλος, of the word’s etymology, a root it happens to share with Holocaust, which echoes the Hebrew for a burnt sacrifice offered whole to God.

Pepper’s Ghosts, along with a host of other illusions and sci-fi dreams of inventions, are often mistakenly called “holograms,” but we can see how these techniques seek to conjure things out of thin air. The illusion part of Pepper’s Ghost is not that the thing you’re seeing isn’t there, it’s that you’re not seeing the glass that partially reflects a thing that is there, obliquely.

The main problem with holographic-style technology—if it is to be achieved without virtual reality glasses or an augmented reality hood and shared by a public—is the need to project onto something. That could be a mist of vapor or concentrated air or charged particles, or a Lucite sculpture, a plexiglass form, a manipulated fog, or a movable plastic film. The ideal of holographic projection is still Princess Leia, projected out of R2-D2, warning Obi-Wan he’s their only hope. Spielberg later reimagined it in Minority Report, when Tom Cruise’s cop character gets high on some illegal poppers and talks to home-movie-style projections of his dead wife and child.

All of these methods, including Pepper’s Ghost, are designed to produce a “hologram effect,” an illusion of depth like the one actual holograms produce for a single viewer looking through a holographic lens. Large, properly lit theaters and the invention of a clear, Saran Wrap-like film that has no glare and is highly transparent now make Pepper’s Ghosts more convincing than what Houdini and Disney used for wows. The holy grail hovering just out of Hollywood’s reach, hampered largely by the sheer computing power needed for it, is the ability to project a likeness into your living room, in all three dimensions. When Stephen Smith was consulting with Steven Spielberg about the best approach to “capturing” Holocaust survivors, the filmmaker reminded him that Hollywood directors shot in Technicolor long before cinemas were prepared to project it. In other words, “film holographically,” he told Smith, even if you can’t project holographically—yet.

It’s also no accident that the thing Pepper chose to conjure was a ghost. We are always looking for novel ways to view sex and death. When digital cameras first began to compete with their analog predecessors, some were marketed as cheaper-than-Polaroid bedroom toys that could help avoid embarrassment at the drugstore pickup counter. In Japan, a woman was recently invited to interact with an avatar of her dead child. At the University of Connecticut, researchers are “developing an immersive learning experience using virtual reality (VR) and game design to bring to life archival materials from the Nuremberg Trials.” USC itself some years ago produced a VR-goggles show, “The Last Goodbye,” in which Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter takes you on “an intimate journey” through the Majdanek concentration camp. Elsewhere, we are told to look out for new “story-driven experiences,” to admire “dazzling showmanship,” see the unseeable, and look, via mediation, at what we should or dare not. But then, crass animals that we are, we get bored again.

Heather Maio-Smith, sitting on a pouf in a glass meeting cubicle at the Shoah Foundation offices, identifies as the “concept developer” of the idea of recording people to be able to talk to them after they are dead. I find it hard to go to that Pacific sunshine and talk about death, and what happens after death, and what happens after all the dead people are dead—but Maio-Smith, who is dark haired, with the purpose driven look of a SoCal let’s-do-this Jewish studies major, makes it clear that my notions are upside down. We’re here in these swank digs to talk about how she came to solve the problem of the end of Holocaust survivors, and how our children and grandchildren are going to thank us for it.

The key, for her, was always the Q&A. “What we all noticed,” she said of observing thousands of presentations over the last 25 years, “was, when a Holocaust survivor got up in front of a group and told them a bit of their story—nobody spoke, nobody uttered a word. You could tell they were listening, but it was when the speaker finished that the room would light up. You saw the body language of the entire audience would just shift. Not one Q&A went on long enough for them.”

In 2008, Cisco had floated and largely failed to spread “telepresence,” a solution for how people might give lectures or perform on stages where they were not. Maio-Smith thought, “If you can do that with a live person, why can’t you do that with a recorded person?”

Her first Epcot Center-like thought was Q&A’s with American presidents, but soon realized that there were other people who might make better subjects for immortality. She brought her concept to the Shoah Foundation’s executive director, Stephen Smith, who loved the idea (and eventually married its originator). They were met with a lot of opposition. Why can’t you use the archive as it is? What if the videos are manipulated? You can’t Disney-ify the Holocaust! Aren’t you creating a metaphysical curiosity that detracts from the content of the testimony? This is a gimmick; the Holocaust does not need gimmicks.

What was surprising to Maio-Smith was “how little vision people actually had.” Everyone knew that the looming death of the last survivor would present a huge problem—especially to the hundreds of provincial Holocaust museums that had staked their premises on them—but they seemed afraid to take any action on it. Institutional Jews had spent a quarter-century collecting testimonies from 50,000 people, but could not imagine a new way to present the same information, she complained. Maio-Smith was asking people to imagine Princess Leia coming out of R2-D2. “And these are people in the tech world. These are people who do special effects for a living. These are people who live in these creative worlds,” Maio-Smith said of her SoCal cohorts. “Nobody could envision what we were talking about.”

Eventually the idea began to take more concrete shape: “If we were going to replicate—we knew we couldn’t replace them—but if we were going to replicate the experience of actually having a Q&A with a survivor,” Maio-Smith said, “I needed whoever interacted to feel as if that survivor was in the room with them, having that conversation.” For that, she needed two things: the natural rhythms of question-and-answer in the survivor’s own authentic voice, and the most convincing version of “telepresence” they could muster.

She visited with USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, a Defense Department-funded research lab, which had separately created an interactive, 360-degree “Light Field Display” that consisted of an angled screen that spun fast enough to deceive the eye into parallax. The resolution was weak and centrifugal forces had to be accounted for, which entombed the object in a Plexiglas box, but the work was in the right direction. ICT had also recently debuted a Star Wars-inspired, 3D teleconferencing system. Paul Debevec there had been developing what became several generations of light stages, used in Hollywood blockbuster animation as well as by the U.S. Army; his inventions won him an engineering Academy Award. His lab was also working on natural language dialogue, as was, it turns out, all of Silicon Valley.

One day that technology would catch up with us, Maio-Smith knew, but the survivors would be dead. If she could get funders to take a leap of faith, then the decision could be made to film the survivors in the most advanced ways possible, collecting, as Spielberg recommended, all the data you could possibly get. This meant renting ICT’s light stage and collaborating to bring together Shoah Foundation’s content and ICT’s visual engineering prowess.

In 2012, then-80-year-old Pinchas Gutter, a Lodz-born Holocaust survivor—the only member of his family to survive the war—was flown out to California from his home in Toronto to sit in ICT’s light stage, a broad, green-screened dome resembling a celestial map if the stars were all evenly spaced and similarly bright, wired with cameras. Pinchas wore scuffed shoes and a sweater vest. For 25 hours he answered questions about his life. Shoah and ICT then developed this material into the DiT program.

Now if you ask Pinchas about his bar mitzvah, he will sing you a song. If you ask him about his twin sister, he will forever reply that he remembers her golden braid, the last time he saw her. The total cost to create a functioning Pinchas was $1.8 million.

Last year, Maio-Smith launched StoryFile, an app designed to make the concepts and lessons of DiT accessible to everyone on their phones, with a fee-based “professional studio experience” option. I asked her if it was right to experiment on Holocaust survivors—to hone a technology that could end up being quite profitable and widespread on the slightly lurid but morally unimpeachable life stories of old Jews who hadn’t died in WWII. “We talked to a lot of Holocaust survivors about this over the years,” she said. “We didn’t get one survivor that didn’t seem like they didn’t understand it—or even if they did, they’d say ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but I don’t care. I’ll do whatever you want as long as the story continues and it’s out there. And my experience is real to people. I’ll do whatever you want.’”

Max

Max Eisen stands below the Arbeit Macht Frei sign at what is now the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, on a bright, dewy May morning in southern Poland. He is speaking alone into a special camera that is capturing him and all 360 degrees of the view around him: the iconic barbed wire fencing, the foxholes, the 70-year-old birch and Lombardy poplars, the staff carts, mowers, brick barracks, terrible chimneys, and, oddly, swallows and European turtle doves. Around him, tour groups raise cellphones up toward that most cynical of entrance signs, in techno-devotional procession. The disaster tourists are all wearing audio headsets so that the guide can speak directly into their ears, softly, to maintain a reverent silence and avoid cacophony, given that 340 guides, speaking 21 languages, now lead 2.32 million visitors through these death camps annually, with half of those of student age.

Max is a formidable man, with a thick mane of shock-white hair and a self-amused severity. His story is, like that of other survivors, a variation on an archetypal theme of loss, inhuman cruelty, suffering, despair, happenstance, and personal accomplishment. That does not diminish the fact that each individual Holocaust biography retains its own dignity and precision, which is an important point—a constant battle against the blurring and blunting of that terrible but vague concept: 6 million.

And yet for the purposes of discussing the ethics and disruptions of a proposed technological solution to the problem of death, Max is, like Eva Kor, a Holocaust Survivor, and one of the 24 souls with eternal interactive biographies. Were we to delve here into his hometown, his family’s disappearance, his ghettoizing, transport, his days at Auschwitz, and his remarkably successful life after it, we might unwittingly be guilty of the kind of sentimentalizing and sensationalizing, the leveraging of uplift and hope, that so plagues the American Holocaust-cultural-educational complex, and the popular press. So let us say again that Max Eisen suffered a great deal, and outlived the end of the war, and prospered. If you’d like to know more about Max—and not just about the depth of his torment in the war but also the heights of his achievements after it—I encourage you to read his book, By Chance Alone, a bestseller in Canada.

Max is here to help USC in their effort to keep Jewish history alive with cutting-edge technology. He is participating in a secondary offshoot of Dimensions in Testimony, in collaboration with the intergenerational advocacy nonprofit The March of the Living, in which survivors are filmed at locations important to their witness testimony and biography, using a six-eyed, camera pod fed into a Canon housing synced with remote mics and monitored on a smartphone app. The concept is to edit and format this material for a virtual reality headset (or whatever comes next in bringing surround-sight to your brains), which would geolocate and orient such that it would be possible to feel like you are standing in front of Max Eisen, at Auschwitz, as he talks about what happened to him there. If you choose, you can turn your head to see what is opposite Max Eisen, or off to the side. Because Max is talking into the front-facing of the lenses, he is essentially talking to you. He can personally show you around his birth village, the gallows where he witnessed public hangings in 1944, and the crematorium—where he can talk about the smell of burning flesh and its ashes falling all around him like snow.

The crew, half of which has traveled from Southern California, is made up of a “program manager for immersive innovations” who functions as producer, a pair of audiovisual techs who double as post-production managers, a Czech historian specializing in 20th-century Eastern Europe, a “director of global initiatives” who helps organize the European transportation and travel required of these coordinated shoots, and the survivor who in this case has brought along his middle-aged Canadian son, Ed.

Because this filming captures the entire surroundings, it is necessary for the crew to scatter and hide behind walls, signs, and trees, to avoid disrupting the immersive effect for the end user with a rupture of what in cinema would be called the fourth wall. Here at Auschwitz, the memorial and museum’s Polish press agent, Łukasz Lipiński, reminds one of the USC crew not to recline in the grass when hiding from his camera: “It only takes one bad Instagram post from anyone here,” misinterpreted as a person choosing to nap on the graves of 6 million Jews, to cause a flare-up of online indignation.

Lipiński informs Max, the indefatigable survivor, that he is on the cover of Memorial, the monthly magazine of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum. Max wears a gold ring with his initials, “ME.” Under the gallows by one of the barracks, he says, after the crew scatters, “Imagine the machine guns … this is just one thing of this terrible brutality.” He talks by himself, to no one, standing in the ruins of the crematorium, then in Gas Chamber 1. “You can feel the cold air blowing through the building.” Italians take selfies and update instastories in front of the open maw of the furnace. A guard floats by on a Segway. “When the wind was right, you could hear it,” he says, of the sardonic orchestra that played when captives marched in and out of the gates to their labors. “You can’t capture that. You can’t film that,” he says, to the six-eyed camera, which looks like the shell of a sea urchin atop a black mic stand.

At midday, over pierogis and borscht at the newly opened restaurant across the street from the epicenter of modernism’s greatest evil, Max remarks: “Ashes make wonderful fertilizer,” gesturing to the fields beyond the camp’s perimeter, which are being plowed for planting this spring day. Back at the hotel, past the bus-friendly McDonald’s on the other side of the Vistula, flyers advertise the biggest amusement park in Poland, Energylandia.

Pinchas Gutter

Pinchas Gutter@uscshoahfoundation

In the late afternoon while Max naps, over at the latrine barracks at Birkenau, with its long line of dark round staggered holes, a distillation of indignity and shit, the two techs have trolleyed over and unpacked the heavy LiDAR equipment they’ve dragged across the ocean, to shoot lasers at the interior forms and capture a data set that could be used to create virtual reproductions of the space, should someone in the future want to set some immersive experience there, as they had done in Majdanek for “The Last Goodbye.” Set on its wide tripod, the machine spins in the middle of the room. The crew again take up positions to avoid fouling up the data, and stand sentry outside to ask the few straggling late visitors only to peek inside.

With some time before our transport heads back I take a walk to Birkenau III, tucked behind the birch forest, which at this late hour is totally abandoned, without even a museum guard in sight—only the ruins of barracks and crematoria, and piles of abandoned metal kitchenware where the stockhouses used to be. The sudden solitude in the raking afternoon light is weirdly alienating. I stroll and work my imagination, which is the task of every visitor here.

To help us conjure the horror, a few select black-and-white pictures of Jewish families forced to wait in these woods in 1944 for their turn in the gas chambers have been enlarged and printed onto black metal information boards: dark, innocent faces made of millions of overlapping and easily discernible halftone dots. These images rely on a basic optical illusion, which allows pulse-width and frequency modulation to trick the eye into seeing smooth shades of gray, and from there into seeing Jews: yellow-starred women with scarves, children mugging for the camera, behatted men in overcoats mulling in the background among the rough trunks of these same trees.

The panel informs us in Hebrew, English, and Polish that the photo was taken “by the SS.” There is no “new” media, only media. These people did exist. This is their data set. This their afterlife. Who doesn’t want an afterlife?

Back in New York, a year later, I saw Max Eisen again. The occasion was a book talk for Max’s memoir, By Chance Alone, which was being issued in the United States. The Museum of Jewish Heritage, together with the New York consular arm of the Canadian Embassy, had put together an evening program, open to the public, that included edifying remarks from representatives of the museum, the March of the Living organization, USC, and Canada, and some earnestly spiritual musical fare, along with a conversation with Max about his life, which is the same thing as talking about his book. Unlike Eva Kor, he’s still going.

We were again in an auditorium, as if watching a play, opposite Ellis Island, not far below where Pinchas Gutter’s hologram had been stationed. 60 Minutes was “doing a segment on Max’s life,” we were told. The stories of Max’s survivorship, which he has delivered for several decades, are varnished and patinated. As his son Ed said to me while we were touring Auschwitz, “he’s told these stories a million times.”

The interviewer (a stand-in for the billed Leslie Stahl, who was in Washington covering the president’s impeachment) asked Max to “start at the beginning,” which for a weeknight event seems a daunting launch point. (Max’s oral history, collected on audio cassette at the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors Conference held in Washington in 1983, also opens, helpfully, with, “Would you please begin by telling me where and when you were born.”) Yet here again off he went, from the beginning, Max’s voice gravely and low into the mic, with its Mitteleuropean hard edges, relayed into the banks of speakers on either side of the stage, out into the room. “If you can imagine,” he says, before describing something unimaginable.

It would be wrong not to call him frail—at 93, a packet of hunched-over bones, despite his uplifting demeanor, his stamina, and his defiant vitality—and yet there he was, giving meaning to the cliché “in the flesh.” And himself emphasizing in his million-times-told stories the physicality of his long-ago ordeal: “you had to deal with all kinds of things happening to your body,” he explained to his well-fed audience. And as that body withered and nearly broke in the hardships of brutalist survival, he knew that he was morphing into a new conception of selfhood, discovering a soul—or spirit, or something—that was separate from his body, something that might outlast his body, or at least await its return. His liberators, he recounted, were “spellbound,” “agape” at the gaunt creatures they discovered 75 years ago this week, “if you can imagine.” After all, he explained, “we were ghosts.”

Beneath Iron Mountain

Future-Proof Your Archive
What does the future hold for your archive? As media formats change and digital technology continues to evolve, will your materials be obsolete? With Iron Mountain, media obsolescence is no longer an issue. Along with safety and preservation, your archive will be expertly migrated and managed in the ever-evolving digital world – all without you ever needing to research formats, transfer media, or pay for migration again. Once your assets are in our system, you can be sure that your archive will always be available and secure—no matter how media formats change—now and into the future. —Iron Mountain’s Entertainment Services website

Off USC’s main campus, inside a nondescript office block across one of the wide avenues of that part of LA, past a security desk and up an elevator, buzzed in through firewall doors, then another, down hallways cluttered with stacked boxes of archival overflow is a command center where a massive migration from analog to digital continues apace. With each transfer, as the space needed for data storage shrinks to the molecular and submolecular level, the earthly physical footprint of this information diminishes from miles of magnetic tape containing kilobytes to sugar-cube-size chemical banks encoding exabytes, still larger than that most elegant of storage devices, DNA. Here are all the flotsam and jetsam of media formats: reel-to-reels with bouncing level needles, plastic stacks of shiny CD-ROMs, Betamax boxes, mini-DVs, VHS, DVDs, infrared scanners, library caddies, Post-its, audio mixers, decoders, rippers, and data cleansers. The actual tapes of survivor testimonies sit underground, in Iron Mountain’s temperature-controlled dry storage facility outside Los Angeles: 235,000 reels whose magnetic particles contain the information of some 54,000 people, most now dead, who all lived past 1945 and at least into the 1970s, when some small part of their own voiced version of their existence on Earth passed through a lens in the form of photons and light waves.

In one cabinet, a robotic arm feeds tapes into machines instructed to harvest the information contained in obsolete formats. Tape that has lightly oxidized or been attacked by living bacteria are gently baked in ovens to stave off the natural decay of the Jewish soul contained within them. Iron is translated into sequences of 1s and 0s to be decoded on silicon, a process that will take four years—the length of the war the tapes attempt to describe—even with the machines running 24 hours a day, fully automated, in a series of wired closets in a dust-free white room, with arrays of blinking lights on decks in racks, and tiny screens therein showing old people in the common garb of the mid-to-late 20th century: large-rimmed glasses, turtlenecks or ruffled blouses, up-dos, wide collars, sometimes cigarettes, silently speaking about the Holocaust. They tell their stories, again, to no one.

Meanwhile, all over the globe, computers wired to the internet send commands here to open and play the visual histories on glowing rectangles, like those at the viewing stations at the Museum of Jewish History, on a glass-walled balcony overlooking the Hudson River, or in Houston’s gleaming new museum hard by alleys of 150-year-old live oaks, or in classrooms, university libraries, or any of the provincial Holocaust museums in America and beyond, on registered or VPN-equipped desktops, laptops, tablets, phones, watches, VR goggles, AR hoods, brain-computer interfaces, and pixelated technologies yet to be invented. And through these machines course Eva, Pinchas, Aaron, Nimrod, Stanley, Renée, Fritzie, Max, Sam, Anita, Bill, Ed, Janine, Leonid, Eva S., Adina, Asia, Izzy, and Matus—all sitting in their club chairs, in a pose of kind openness, staring blankly but benignly at they are not sure what, ready to answer any questions you, or your children, or your children’s children, or your children’s grandchildren, may have about what it was like to survive the Holocaust.

Every question that is asked of a Dimensions in Testimony survivor is logged, and in another windowless room on the USC campus, surveilled. A chart, autopopulating in real time, lists the voice recognition software’s interpretation of the question that was posed, and the response segment that was returned to the viewers. To teach both the proprietary systems and the part that is farmed out to IBM’s Watson AI, technicians can approve or disapprove questions and answers, and propose better matches, which Watson in turn analyzes and remembers.

Pinchas, the original beta of survivor replicas, returns the most appropriate answers at the most natural rhythm. The newer holograms are still learning how to interact effectively with visitors, and can come across as halting or perhaps hard of hearing if not demented. Their makers continue to fine-tune their simulated humanity in pursuit of the ultimate goal of making them indistinguishable from reality.

Nearby, in a Kubrickesque white room no smaller than a Neolog synagogue, sit row after row of black closetlike server units, rigged above them and below the perforated floor with neatly bundled cables. This is USC’s central cortex. The room hums with air coolers and fans. Once, this supercomputer was one of America’s fastest; now it has fallen out of the top 500 globally in terms of the number of one-thousand-million-million (1015) floating-point operations it can perform per second. The human brain is estimated to operate at about 1,000 petaflops, which puts humanity currently just past 1.4% of the way to a full simulation, with no sense of how hard it will be to gain that other 98.6%, what paradigmatic shifts in computing will happen along the way, or any idea what sublime ecstasy and madness an artificial brain may engender.

Absent for the moment are any of the monklike attendants in oxford shirts and pleated pants, capable of turning yellow or red blinking lights back into green. If somehow a server were to overheat or melt, or a raw-cable spark ignite a divine flame, programmatically responsive tanks of inert Argonite and CO2 would flood the sealed room and displace the fire-fueling oxygen. Any flesh-based organisms that hadn’t heeded the alarms to vacate the premises would suffocate or barotraumatically explode. But the servers would abide.

Down at the end of one of the rows of stacks are two mauve-colored Sun Microsystems Sun Rack 1000-38 data cabinets with power distribution units, containing parallel processing machines and a robotic StorageTek feeder system with hand asset for selecting solid-state pods. A small plaque hangs on the front of one: “Development of this video digital library was funded by Dana and Yossie Hollander.”

The Hollanders, an Israeli software entrepreneurial and philanthropical couple, fund structural proteomics research while advocating for alternative fuels to wean the world off oil. A larger sign over the two closets—an American mausoleum—announces: “This video digital library transmits all USC Shoah Foundation Institute interviews to universities and museums around the world.” On the front, a green light indicates that the library is active. Next to it, under a clear protective flap, is a red button labeled “Emergency Robotics Stop.”

When someone, somewhere, at a computing station calls up one of the video testimonies describing personal experiences of the Holocaust, StorageTek inside the Sun sends its hand asset, like a vending machine retrieving a Coke bottle, to whichever of the several hundred memory units contains the requested interview and, with an audible whirr of belt drives and worm gears, couples it with an active part of the larger CPU.

Within five to 10 years, when all the Holocaust survivors are finally dead, a new migration will begin to newer digital, chemical, or light-based formats, or to forms yet to be invented. The souls of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust will again silently relay their songlines from one machine to another, until the sentimentally Spielbergian, sci-fi precog predictions come true and a great universal quantum-computing artificial brain for all mankind drops a cybernated scroll in the mouths of these scraps of humanity, and brings their collective memory of suffering and survival back to life.

Matthew Fishbane is Creative Director at Tablet magazine.

Support Our Journalism Today

The Jewish world needs a place like Tablet where varying—even conflicting—viewpoints can exist side by side. Our times demand an engagement with big ideas and not a retreat from them.

Help us do what we do.