An innovative project at the Holocaust Museum uses the latest technology to create interactive survivor testimonies. Etan Smallman hears why it’s so vital that their experiences are saved for the future
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For more than 20 years, Joan Salter has begun almost every one of her school sessions with the same question: “When you were told that a Holocaust survivor was coming to speak to you, what were you expecting?” “Well, I asked this question recently,” she says. “It was a secondary school in the middle of ‘white England’ and one boy called out: ‘Someone who’s come to tell us lies’.”
If the 76-year-old – who was born in Belgium and spent the first years of her life “running and hiding and escaping” across Europe – had been in any doubt about the pressing need for her classroom visits, she wasn’t any longer. What is in question, however, is her ability to continue doing up to 80 talks a year, a schedule that is increasingly “physically draining” and which even she – with her youthful energy and survival spirit – won’t be able to keep up for ever.
Luckily, Salter is one of the first Holocaust survivors in the world whose testimony, at least, is to be made immortal, as part of the Forever Project, an initiative that could signal the future of history education.
The National Holocaust Centre and Museum near Newark, Nottinghamshire, has used state-of-the-art 4K cameras to film 10 survivors being asked up to 1,400 questions each over a week of intensive interviews. The result is an exhibit that allows children, and adults, to ask their own question to a 3D projection of a survivor and receive an answer, regardless of whether the veteran is in the building or even still alive.
The computer converts the spoken question into text it can read before instantly matching it to one of the seven terabytes-worth of pre-recorded answers. Coughs, pauses and sips of water have been kept in, all helping to create the feel of a surprisingly natural conversation.
Many of the survivors confided details they had never previously revealed – some on the agreement that they wouldn’t be shared until after their deaths.
For now, the exhibit – which will also be used for hate-crime training with police officers, prosecutors and local authorities – will be based at the centre. But taking it into classrooms, loading it on to mobile phones and converting it into a virtual-reality experience are “only a couple of years away”.
“It was born out of the understanding that survivors are key to much of what we do,” says Phil Lyons, CEO of the centre, which has 20,000 children passing through its doors every year and one or two survivors giving talks every day of the week.
He admits that children pose “all sorts of questions, some of them totally insensitive, some of them fantastically insightful”. (These range from enquiring about what Hitler was like and whether concentration camp prisoners kept pets to asking: “Do you ever wish you weren’t born Jewish?”) “But they’re kids and they will ask what they want to ask,” says Lyons. “And it’s that one-to-one communication that cements the whole experience.”
Salter had started thinking about scaling down her talks six years ago but is doing them, in part because of, as she puts it, the need not to let people down.
Beyond posterity, she says that the benefit of the new concept is as much about relieving the pressure of having to travel to talk to school groups from Newark to Norwich (not to mention allowing her the chance to get to work on her master’s degree).
There is something else that weighs on her mind, though. It is evident when she quickly corrects herself after uttering the words “my story”. “We try not to say story,” she explains, “because of the fictitious connotations”.
For Salter, the spectre of Holocaust denial looms large. The Forever Project means that deniers, relishing the thought of a time when survivors are no longer around to challenge their slurs, will still have to contend with those such as Salter, in perpetuity. Her responsive hologram will be a human face attesting to the savagery of the 20th century even from beyond the grave.
Referring to the pupil who declared the Holocaust a lie, she says: “It did shake me that a kid would say that. But it does show where we are at, at the moment.” In a world with Donald Trump as President-elect and Marine Le Pen on the march in France, Salter is convinced it is no coincidence. “You know, you do just absolutely despair,” she says of the current political landscape. “However, I’m not surprised, because I do think that civilisation is a very thin veneer. And just scratch it…
“We might pretend we’re not, but we’re tribal. Look at Brexit, some families won’t even talk to others who voted differently. But I say to kids: you don’t have to love everyone. But respect them.”
Girls from a Year 6 class at Brookfield Primary in Shirebrook, Derbyshire, are among the first to test out the new tech. Of her encounter with 81-year-old Theresienstadt survivor Steven Frank, 10-year-old Jessie says: “It felt like you were actually getting an answer from a real person. It was a few seconds before he actually responded. But then if you ask someone a question in real life, they have to think about it as well!” Talor, 11, adds: “If you were watching it in 2D, you’d just think you were watching it on TV. But in 3D, it looks like he’s actually there in the room with you. I really enjoyed asking my question because he sounds like a really nice man.”
Children are now so immersed in digital media in their bedrooms that they inevitably demand the same offering in their classrooms and museums.
Nottingham Trent University has used gaming technologies to develop a virtual tour of the city’s old county jail at the Galleries of Justice Museum for those with impaired mobility, and the National Trust for Scotland’s Bannockburn visitor centre has harnessed 3D kit that allows visitors to experience medieval combat.
Chris Walker, of Bright White, the interpretive designers behind the Forever Project, insists his team is taking its lead from the children. “You have to recognise the things that technology brings them – choice, agency and high production values,” he says.
“We’re approaching a time when access to content is going to be so rapid and so vast that it would be possible for either a teacher or a student to ask a number of people from history the same question and get 10 different answers. That’s worth far more than ever hearing just one version of events.
“I believe that’s one of the few ways we can teach complex and ill-structured subjects like conflict. That ability to bring in voices quickly and in an organic way is very, very close. That’s really exciting.”
- The Forever Project launches at The National Holocaust Centre and Museum at the end of January: foreverproject.co.uk