Want to Speak to a Holocaust Survivor? Now you can.

special software captures holocaust survivors stories

Dimensions in Testimony (DiT) is a collection of interactive biographies from USC Shoah Foundation that enable people to have conversations with pre-recorded video images of Holocaust survivors and other witnesses to genocide.

So far, 16 survivors – 15 from the Holocaust and one from the 1937 Nanjing Massacre – have been interviewed for the project. Each survivor selected to participate has also given his or her testimony to the Institute’s Visual History Archive, which contains 55,000 video testimonies of survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides. But DiT is a new kind of initiative. The survivors were interviewed surrounded by cameras arranged in a rig to capture a three-dimensional recording of them telling their story in a new way, by answering questions that people are most likely to ask.

Eva Schloss looks at interviewer Stephen Smith through a mirror on the stage.

The value of the project is to provide an intimate experience with eyewitnesses to history who are uniquely qualified to reflect on life.

For more than 70 years, Holocaust survivors have recounted their stories to people all over the world, providing invaluable insights that shape and inform perspectives. As a part of those encounters, people have asked questions in their own words about issues that are important to them.

Dimensions in Testimony is currently on permanent display at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, and will eventually be available at selected museums and learning institutions around the world to enhance USC Shoah Foundation’s mission of keeping voices of the Holocaust and other genocides alive for education and action.

USC Shoah Foundation and USC Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) compiled the questions posed for Dimensions in Testimony from a variety of sources, including hundreds of students and members of the public. In all, more than 2,000 questions have been compiled for each interviewee, covering a vast range of subjects.

Advancing Technology for Humanity

Whether people ask, “Where were you born?” “Do you believe in God?” “How did you survive?” Data is captured and processed into video segments that can be played back verbatim, precisely as the survivors delivered them. The playback technology enables the survivor to seamlessly answer the question posed and is able to recognize similarities between word patterns in questions and answers.

Zigi Ariav sits for his New Dimensions in Testimony interview. His was the first conducted in English and Hebrew.

Years from now, long after the last survivor has left us, Dimensions in Testimony will be able to provide a valuable opportunity to engage with a survivor and ask them questions directly, encouraging them, each in their own way, to reflect on the deep and meaningful consequences of their experiences. Being able to ask a survivor questions will allow students to be active participants in their learning and develop important communication and critical-thinking skills. Being able to ask their own questions will teach students things about historical atrocities they never could learn from just reading a history book. By providing valuable points of view from someone who was there, students can better understand the human story behind the acts of human cruelty and understand the impact it had on real people in a manner that is responsive and engaging, making history more relevant to their lives.

How Natural Language Technology Works

One critical element of the new project is developing the ability to understand questions put to a survivor and select appropriate responses. This will allow a person to engage in an interactive dialogue with the survivor, asking questions in their own words and hearing the survivor’s response. The technology must be able to recognize similarities between word patterns in questions and answers and choose answers to new questions that are similar, but not the same as, questions for which the answers are known.

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