Sydney Jewish Museum works on high-tech filming to allow future generations to have lifelike conversations with Australian Holocaust survivors

25 January 2021

Thanks to current technology, six Australian Holocaust survivors will now have the opportunity to share their stories of history, hope, survival and resilience with generations long into the future.

The Sydney Jewish Museum is currently undertaking a Dimensions in Testimony filming project, which captures six Holocaust survivors in three-dimensions. This is being undertaken in collaboration with the USC (University of Southern California) Shoah Foundation.

USC Shoah Foundation’s Dimensions in Testimony has revolutionised the concept of oral history by integrating advanced filmmaking techniques, specialised display technologies, and next-generation natural language processing to provide an intimate and unique experience. Each specially recorded interview enables visitors to ask questions of the survivor about their life experiences, and hear responses in real-time, lifelike conversation. Questions are answered naturally, as if the survivor is in the room, and through artificial intelligence, the more questions asked, the better the technology becomes.

The filming process in intensive and each survivor is filmed over the span of five days in 360 degrees by a custom-made rig of 23 cameras. The survivors answer almost one thousand questions, which are later cut into short clips. Using artificial intelligence (AI) and next generation language processing the technology is trained to respond to audience questions which will enable future museum visitors to converse with a Holocaust survivor as though they were standing in front of them. It will take almost a year to create each DIT.

This extensive and unique project is estimated to cost the Sydney Jewish Museum close to $3mio.

Norman Seligman, CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum says, “In 2019 our Museum welcomed close to 60,000 visitors, 50% of whom were school students. The highlight and most memorable part of a Museum visit is to meet and hear in person from a Holocaust survivor. For many years we have been planning and preparing for a future when, sadly, we will no longer have survivors with us. The Dimensions in Testimony initiative is the most exciting and definitely the most expensive single project ever undertaken by the Museum in this regard.

“The project will bring the voices of the survivors and their stories to life, allowing visitors in the future to have an authentic and meaningful experience of survivor testimony. The images are so life-like and the responses so accurate that one soon forgets that one is not talking to a real person. Our belief is that it will continue to inspire future generations to learn from the Holocaust and to take a stand against intolerance of any form, in the hope that history will never repeat itself.

“The decision of who to include in this filming project was extremely difficult. Working with the USC Shoah Foundation, we considered survivors who have differing Holocaust and post-war experiences and their age during the Holocaust. We then decided on the six survivors whose history we believe allowed for a broad range of experiences to be recorded.”

The President of the Museum, Professor Gus Lehrer AM FAA, added: “This project is part of the Museum’s program, initiated by Survivors in the 1980s, to teach personal responsibility through a knowledge of the Holocaust.”

The Holocaust survivors sharing their incredible stories are Eddie Jaku OAM (100), Olga Horak OAM (93), Kuba Enoch (93), Yvonne Engelman OAM (92), Paul Drexler (82) and Francine Lazarus (82).

Olga Horak says, “I am honoured and humbled to be part of this project. We can’t let testimonies fade into oblivion. It’s important for people to learn about history from those who experienced it. There will come a day when there are no longer Holocaust survivors alive to tell their stories. History will always be available to read in text books, but the memory of witnesses is more exact than the history written by those who were not there.”

Stephen D. Smith, the Finci Viterbi Executive Director of USC Shoah Foundation, says, “Their stories of survival are unique and diverse, yet these three women and three men share many things – a homeland in Australia, incredible bravery in telling their stories, and unshakable dedication to do all they can so others can learn from what happened to them and their families.”

Project Co-ordinator Shannon Biederman says, “Over the years, the SJM has undertaken many filming projects in an effort to preserve the legacy of Holocaust survivors. Bringing the USC Shoah Foundation’s custom-built volumetric capture rig to Australia to film our survivors in 360 degrees is an incredible opportunity to preserve these important histories for posterity. We have already recorded some amazing material and are looking forward to creating these interactive biographies that will allow future generations to have a meaningful and memorable interaction with survivor testimony.”

Dimensions in Testimony is an initiative by USC Shoah Foundation to record and display testimony of Holocaust survivors and other witnesses to genocide in a way that will preserve dialogue between survivors and museum-goers well into the future.

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