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With help from AI, a Holocaust survivor’s story lives on

How 116 cameras and natural language processing turn museums into conversations.

By Tony Rehagen

Eva Kor is waiting for me to ask her a question. We are seated across from each other in the small, darkened auditorium of the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center, which she opened here in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1995. Eva fidgets in her chair, occasionally adjusting the bright blue scarf that matches her suit, the same formal attire that she wore the last time I interviewed her in this very room more than five years ago.

“Eva, why do you wear blue?”

There’s a pause, a glitch in her expression. Then she replies in the same heavy Romanian accent I remember: “Blue looks good on me; and I look good in blue.”

The light icebreaker belies the weight of what Eva is actually here to talk about.

When Eva was 10 years old, Hungarian soldiers raided her home in Portz, Romania, and put her and her family on a cattle car bound for Auschwitz. Upon arrival, she and her twin sister, Miriam, were separated from their parents, whom they never saw again. The girls were taken to a barracks where they and other sets of twins were experimented on by the nefarious Nazi “doctor” Josef Mengele.

“They say that eyes are the mirrors of the soul,” Eva says at the mention of the word experiment. “In Mengele’s case that was correct. When I looked into his eyes, I could see nothing but evil.”

The answers Eva gives are long, detailed, and almost verbatim to those she gave me the last time we spoke. After all, she used to give this talk up to 500 times a year. Eva once told me that no matter how often she delivered it, she always felt some of it. Likewise, each time I hear Eva speak about her internment and life thereafter, I can’t help but be moved.

But today’s interaction is especially haunting — because Eva died in 2019.

The Eva sitting before me is a digital high-definition projection. Three years before she died, Eva joined 11 other Holocaust survivors who took part in Dimensions in Testimony, an initiative sponsored by the USC Shoah Foundation, which was founded in 1994 by Steven Spielberg. Dimensions in Testimony uses multiple-angle, green-screen filming technology, natural language processing, and voice-recognition software to produce a vivid projection of each survivor and enable the avatar to respond to questions from the public.

“With technology, there is so much more that we can explore, while preserving these memories in a way that we can interact with them, instead of just learn about them,” says Bob De Schutter, a professor of computer science at Northeastern University. “That’s the language of upcoming generations.”

In this Sunday, March 10, 2019, photo, Brittani Logsdon, right standing, administrative coordinator for CANDLES Holocaust Museum in Terre Haute, Ind. shows a group of visitors how the new interactive Eva Kor works. Clad in her iconic blue pant suit with matching scarf and shoes, Eva Kor can educate people about the Holocaust for generations to come thanks to a new interactive exhibit. (Austen Leake/The Tribune-Star via AP)

If asked, Eva’s image will tell you that, for 30 years after Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet army, she didn’t tell anyone the details of her confinement. She and Miriam had no desire to relive their experience. They eventually returned to Romania to live with their aunt, then immigrated to Israel, where they both served in the army. In 1960, Eva married a Buchenwald survivor and US citizen named Michael Kor, and the couple moved to Indiana. Even their two children rarely heard mention of the word “Holocaust.” The children didn’t know why they had no grandparents and didn’t understand why their mother had a blue tattoo of a number (A-7063) on the inside of her left arm.

In 1978, the NBC affiliate in Terre Haute asked Eva for an interview for a network mini-series called Holocaust. At age 44, she reluctantly agreed. She talked about the train ride, 70 people stuffed into a car with no idea of their destination; about stepping out onto the platform at Auschwitz, seeing the smokestacks of the crematorium billowing black smoke into the sky. Losing her mother’s hand in the frenzy, never seeing her again. The experiments, being repeatedly injected with never-identified substances. The injection that made her so ill that Mengele himself gave her two weeks to live and left her to die on the floor of her rat-infested barracks. The promise she made to herself that she would survive.

“I think it’s a great privilege for an 82-year-old person to realize that I might be able to talk to young people 50 years from now and they can hear my voice.”

Eva Kor, Holocaust survivor

Eva found that talking openly about those events gave her agency, the power to move on and relieve herself of the burden of her past. It gave her the ability to forgive. To her, it wasn’t about diminishing what had happened, but more about disarming those memories of the ability to harm her. In a way, it was a final victory for Eva over her captors.

Eva opened the CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors) museum in 1995, in part to spread this idea of forgiveness. She reinforced the message in 2003, when arsonists torched the building after spray-painting the front wall with the phrase “Remember Timothy McVeigh,” a reference to the right-wing terrorist responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. “As I stood in the parking lot watching the flames, reporters asked me how I felt,” says Eva’s image. “I told them, ‘I’ve had better days, but I’ve had worse.’” And she felt the community’s response when they donated a collective $500,000 to rebuild the museum better than ever.

Throughout those decades, Eva traveled the country and the world to tell her story. She led tours of Auschwitz. She spoke to tens of thousands of school children. She wrote six books and was the subject of several documentaries. She never turned down a media request. So when she was invited to participate in Dimensions in Testimony, she leapt at the chance. “I think it’s a great privilege for an 82-year-old person,” she said at the time, “to realize that I might be able to talk to young people 50 years from now and they can hear my voice.”

In 2016, Eva flew to Los Angeles to sit for a week of interviews, five days for five hours each. She sat in an armchair beneath the all-encompassing gaze of 116 cameras, placed at various angles throughout the domed stage. She wore the same clothes each day, trying to approximate the same look (a challenge for Eva because of a mid-week allergic reaction to some hotel skin lotion). She answered more than 2,000 questions — 30 total hours of interviews. Each answer became a separate video clip that was then paired to more than two dozen variations on questions people would likely ask. Then natural-language technology broke those questions into searchable terms, matching each term that might come from an audience member to the best recorded answer.

So when a museum visitor asks: “Eva, how did you learn English?” the software keys in on the word “English” and plays Eva’s answer: “When I came to the United States … I was lonely … so I turned on the television … and it was program called As the World Turns.”

The interactivity is close to having a conversation, making the questioner — the learner — feel like the teacher is talking with them, not at them. “You see it in every class: Show me, and I’ll forget; involve me, and I’ll learn,” says De Schutter, who designed an award-winning video game based on his grandmother’s experience during the Nazi invasion of Belgium. But what makes Dimensions in Testimony particularly effective in imparting lessons is the representation of the survivors and their own voices conversing with you. “Authenticity is super important,” says De Schutter, who recorded his grandmother’s actual voice for his game. “You have to connect to a person on a meaningful, cultural level.”

In some moments during my conversation with Eva’s image, her hair is slightly more disheveled, or noticeable bags appear under her eyes. That’s to be expected from anyone sitting through marathon interviews under the bright lights, let alone an 82-year-old. But CANDLES executive director Leah Simpson, who was with Eva during these interviews, says that Eva’s health was already starting to fade. It was as if she realized she didn’t have much longer to live, and she was determined to preserve as much of herself, her story, and her message of inner peace through forgiveness as she could before she died.

The Shoah Foundation feels this same urgency as it works to gather testimonies from more survivors of this and other atrocities. Dimensions in Testimony is currently available permanently only at the Shoah Foundation in California; a museum in Skokie, Illinois; and here at CANDLES (Eva made sure of that). But the technology is easily portable and traveling exhibits are and will be crossing the U.S. and the globe. The raw material, the interviews and camera footage, is being kept, awaiting possible adaptations to future machine-learning and augmented-reality technology — anything to hold on to these eyewitnesses to history for as long as possible.

When my time with Eva is up, I take the hand-held mouse, hold down the left button, and speak. “Goodbye, Eva. Thank you.”

I mean thank you not only for this interview, but for my 2017 interview and the selflessness of her mission so that I might learn.

Eva pauses. Then suddenly a smile appears across her face, one of the few times I’ve seen her smile through either interview I’ve conducted, real or virtual.

“Goodbye,” she says. “Thank you for coming.”

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Tony Rehagen is a writer based in St. Louis. His work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and Pacific Standard.

Image courtesy of USC Shoah Foundation


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