Can you forgive? Did you want revenge? Is it difficult to share your experience with other people?
These are just some of the questions posed to Holocaust survivors in the new exhibition, Reverberations: A future for memory, at Sydney Jewish Museum.
Last year, having heard rumours about the project, VICE was invited to an early tour of the exhibition. Before we walked in, senior curator Shannon Biederman had tears in her eyes as she explained why they went ahead with Reverberations. She doesn’t like talking about a future where there are no longer any living Holocaust survivors, but each year that reality is coming closer. And while it’s sad, she hopes things like Reverberations will help future generations grasp the history — directly from the mouths of survivors.
The first thing you notice is a high-definition gallery where you can watch footage of 43 survivors answering big questions. Some survivors felt strongly about justice, others wanted to forgive, and the uniqueness of each survivor — their quirks, their humour, their differing perspectives of shared trauma – pours over you.
There are also interactive biographies of three people: Olga Horak, Yvonne Engelman, and Eddie Jaku. Life-size screens show these survivors in 2D and use artificial intelligence (AI) and language processing technology to dig through hours of recorded interviews, allowing some of Australia’s last Holocaust survivors to answer whatever question you may have asked, in real time. It makes it feel like you’re having an actual conversation.
It’s a confronting experience to come face-to-face with a survivor as they blink at you, waiting patiently for a question. Nervously, I asked Olga about her family. Within four seconds, she was saying: “I was together with my mum for the entire time. We were in the same camps but divided into different groups and workplaces.”
At the same time, over in Eddie’s corner, some other visitors asked about his best friend (Kurt) and whether he liked Vegemite (he reckons it’s lovely). He was also quite good at plugging his book, The Happiest Man On Earth.
To make Reverberations happen, Sydney Jewish Museum partnered with the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation, a not-for-profit that runs the Dimensions of Testimony initiative, which makes audio-visual interviews with Holocaust survivors and other witnesses of genocides.
And while it's easy for the mind to start ticking through worries around AI – a mysterious and futuristic beast we don’t fully understand – these biographies will only be pulling responses from existing survivor testimony.
“It takes about six months to train each system and we can’t do it without input from the general public,” Shannon told me. “Each interactive biography must go through an important testing phase, where they learn to connect any question people ask with the many hours of footage that can be drawn on as answers.”
These AI “biographies” have to be asked tens of thousands of questions before they’re ready for exhibition. In real life, the survivors were asked over 1000 questions about their lives, which begs the question: how difficult is it to relive the memories in such detail?
“There were many emotionally fraught times on set,” said Shannon. “As you can imagine, sitting there and reliving their trauma over and over for five days took an immense toll on each of the survivors, and everyone on set. Often, the survivors shared things they had never told anyone before, even their own families. There were many tears and by the end of each week, everyone was exhausted.”
The team ensured the survivors remained in control throughout the process. Shannon says that survivors could take breaks, stop recording and make any requests as needed — including declining any questions they didn’t want to discuss. There was also always a member of the survivor’s family, a paramedic and a psychologist available for support throughout the entire filming process.
The hope is that by sharing these experiences, all of us will connect with the individuals, and continue to learn from their experience, so it never happens again.
Shannon says the public is already connecting more with the biographies than she could have anticipated.
“For me, it’s been the little things, like how people ‘thank’ the digital survivors for sharing their stories and say ‘hi’ and ‘bye’. People treat the technology almost like it’s a real person.”
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