What if, long after Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter has died of old age, a student of the Holocaust is moved by his testimony and would like to ask him a question?
If the USC Shoah Foundation for Visual History and Education has done its job correctly, the student will be able to do so, with the help of some hologram technology.
Gutter and foundation executive director Stephen D. Smith discussed the potential of the technology in a public conversation at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown on Nov. 11.
About 250 people attended the event, hearing Gutter relate his wartime experiences and Smith discuss how he elicited those memories. Both are part of a film Smith made about Gutter, The Void: In Search of Things Lost, which the college showed the next day as part of its annual week-long commemoration of Kristallnacht.
The foundation has put on video 52,000 survivor testimonies in 32 languages and recently has taken this effort one step further, the two explained. Gutter agreed to sit in a chair in a production studio he called a “bubble” to answer 200 questions, five hours at a time. The questions were recorded by a high-fidelity 3D camera.
The technology is able to project a life-like image of the survivor, and software allows the image to respond according to a viewer’s questions. (See a video demonstration here.)
“It’s one thing to just go and tell your story,” said Gutter. “But the questions people ask afterward are actually as important or more important than the storytelling.”
He added: “When you tell the story, you are telling something that happened, and it engenders something in the life of the listener. It does something to the person listening. It touches a nerve and the question allows a person to work through it. It’s so important because it creates a relationship.”
Born in Lodz, Poland, Gutter, his twin sister, and their parents were sent to the Majdanek concentration camp after they were discovered hiding in an attic during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. His sister and parents were sent to the crematorium. He watched his best friend get selected for death right next to him and mourned him for 53 years, only to meet him as a senior citizen in Europe in 2002.
Gutter described how, despite a case of typhus, he continued to labor at a work camp rather than go to a hospital and face certain death. When he finally did go to the hospital, a Jewish police officer looked him right in the eyes and declared the room empty. He survived not just Majdanek but Buchenwald, Theresienstadt, and other camps.
“Everything I loved, everything that gave me warmth, was taken from me, was robbed from me, at Majdanek,” he said. “From the moment I saw my twin sister’s braid go around the corner with my mother, from that moment on, I knew I had to kill my soul if I was to survive.”
At the end of the presentation, Gutter, who serves as a cantor at the Kiever synagogue in Toronto, recited the Kaddish and chanted El Maleh Rachamim, mostly with his eyes closed.
One day, students of the Holocaust may watch a hologram of Gutter recalling how he chanted Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur in 1942. “I am not in Toronto, but I am in that attic, in Warsaw, in 1942,” he recalled, “and my father is standing there, putting his large hasidische tallis around me, and the men are all quietly crying and praying for deliverance.”