Iconic losses reignite discussion: how to educate without survivors?

We are approaching a crucial moment in the construction of the universal memory of this genocide: the one in which future generations will no longer have the opportunity to hear face-to-face, live accounts and testimonies of Holocaust victims who have rebuilt their lives close to us. .

By Carlos Reiss

The year 2022 was a year of many losses. Names like Jorge Josef, Guitta Heilbraun, Samuel Grimbaum and Jan Farsky, all partners in the mission of educating from their own stories of resistance and survival of the Holocaust, are no longer with us and have rested. In addition to him, we also lost our compatriot Andor Stern, known as the only Brazilian-born survivor of the genocide committed by the Nazis and their collaborators – which is not historically authentic, since other names were raised by the team at the Holocaust Museum of Curitiba and by the researcher Blima Rajzla Lorber.

In the case of Mr Andor, the fact is that his captivating figure and his impressive oral testimony have become widely known in Brazil in recent years, from conversations with students to participation in television programs. It was impossible to leave unrelated to reflections after listening to his simple speech full of hope, optimism and wisdom. An iconic loss for all of us. When expressing gratitude for wearing comfortable shoes and having clean sheets every day, for example, he presented us with phrases that seemed to have come out of the pages of the holy books of the Jewish people: “each day I live is a dessert”.

There are still between 350,000 and 400,000 survivors living around the world – around 160,000 of them living in Israel. In Brazil, numbers have always been uncertain and based on estimates. Here, while this article is being written and according to the National Integrated Base created by the Holocaust Museum of Curitiba, there are 291 known living survivors – a number that is certainly different due to the amount of records with unknown status, to those who died recently and are still unknown to us and, obviously, to those who have not been “discovered”. Of the total, the majority live in the state of São Paulo – 207 – and are already at a very advanced age.

A well-known Jewish phrase, which is seen as a blessing and even a popular saying, calls for long life. The expression “may you live to be 120 years old”, which originates from biblical texts (one of them points out that this would be the number of years lived by the prophet Moshe), is commonly said on birthdays, celebrations and recoveries from illnesses. Well then. Let us think, hope and believe utopianly that all survivors of the Holocaust who still inhabit this plane will live to be 120 years old. Even so, we are approaching a crucial moment in the construction of the universal memory of this genocide: the one in which future generations will no longer have the opportunity to hear face-to-face, live, accounts and testimonies of Holocaust victims who have rebuilt their lives close to us.

What will become of Holocaust broadcasting and education when that time comes? How can we ensure that those who have not yet been born understand and use the legacies we build from the tragedy? Unfortunately, the aforementioned survivors and many others have left us at a more worrying pace in the last two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic. And what will become of the memory of the Holocaust? How to educate without survivors?

Reaching New Audiences

Educating is not reproducing previously prepared recipes. It involves understanding, reframing and decoding both the contexts and the needs that each subject has in connecting with new realities. With the Holocaust, it is no different. Museums, research centers, community institutions and educational initiatives have been discussing the future of broadcasting based on the inevitable loss of face-to-face testimony and the challenge of reaching a young audience – generically called by us “new generations”.

Let's remember the project “Eva's stories”, an audiovisual production created in 2019 by Israeli entrepreneur Mati Kochavi and which has 70 episodes in Instagram stories. The product is inspired by the real diary of the young Jewish woman Eva Heyman, murdered in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination complex, in October 1944. The stories begin with the 13-year-old teenager's daily reports and go on to moments before her death.

There were criticisms from experts, who ranged from disrespect to a possible path that would lead to visitor selfies at the gates of Auschwitz. I analyze differently. Education cannot discriminate against technology, which must be an ally for us educators. And it is not a question of whether or not to be fictional, but rather to use tools that communicate more efficiently and assertively with the so-called “new generations” – and with responsible productions. That’s the case of the account opened in 2020 by the Holocaust Museum of Curitiba on the TikTok app, a unique phenomenon that transformed the way young people communicate on social media.

In just a few months, more than 25,000 people started to follow and interact with the Museum's TikTok page, which publishes daily short videos created especially for the platform. The young team from the Communication department creates the scripts, records and edits the final product, with support from historians and other areas of the institution. Would this be the solution for a near future without survivors?

Technology and plurality

There is no single solution. We will continue to work in a multi and transdisciplinary way, anchoring ourselves in the universal literature and in the historical records collected and systematized by scientists in recent decades. Meanwhile, the years go by and we continue to use technology to our advantage.

Has anyone ever talked to a 3D hologram? I had already read and seen a lot about an audacious project by the USC Shoah Foundation, an institute of Visual History and Education created in 1994 by director Steven Spielberg, called “Dimensions in Testimony”. These are, a priori, Holocaust survivors positioned in armchairs in a studio full of high definition cameras and lights to capture them from various angles. The result is an artificial intelligence with interactive features and voice recognition technology. In practice, it would be as if a person were sitting in front of you and you could interact with him through questions.

In March 2022, during a technical visit to the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, in the United States, I had the opportunity to interact with this tool. In this case, talking to the hologram of Mr. Max Glauben, a Holocaust survivor, then 94 years old, who still lived with his family in Dallas and died less than two months later. The pioneering project uses advanced filming techniques, display technologies and state-of-the-art language processing to create an interactive biography in real time. There are more than a thousand possible answers in the supercomputer's database, which generates an amazing result.

The idea came several years ago and stemmed from the obvious realization that soon there would be no survivors to tell their stories. Those in charge say that "it's not about technology for technology's sake". I understand. It is not intended to replace face-to-face testimony. Will holograms and artificial intelligence solve all memory building problems? Neither. But they are new tools that came to contribute.

Today, not everyone will have the possibility of relying on expensive scientific solutions such as “Dimensions in Testimony”. However, the thematic and transformative potential that the Holocaust gives us, combined with the search for the attention of new audiences and the breathtaking development of technology, envision a promising future for the construction of this memory - even without the survivors present here, a natural fact of the life. It is important that new educational proposals are constantly conceived and polished, preventing the extinction of live testimony from taking us by surprise. As with any memory, there is still a long way to go.