Using Holograms and AI to Preserve Firsthand Stories of the Holocaust

Holocaust survivor Max Glauben films a segment in an interactive green-screen room for the Dallas Holocaust Museum. Courtesy McGuire Boles/Dallas Holocaust Museum.

At 91, Max Glauben is still telling his story to anyone who will listen.

Born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1928, Glauben helped found the Dallas Holocaust Museum Center for Education and Tolerance in 1984, and ever since he’s been talking to school groups and museum patrons, as well as to the teens who accompany him on his frequent trips to Israel and the concentration camps of Eastern Europe.

“Max Glauben is a source of inspiration for anyone who has met him,” said Mary Pat Higgins, president and CEO of the Dallas museum. “He inspires me daily. His resilience and forgiveness and what he’s made of his life gives me hope in humanity.”

And now, thanks to technology that is transforming the world of Holocaust remembrance, Max Glauben will be speaking and answering students’ questions in perpetuity.

Time has long posed a problem for Holocaust museums. Since the first Holocaust remembrance centers were established after World War II — Los Angeles’ museum, which opened in 1961, was the first in the United States — Holocaust survivors themselves have been the most effective way to bring the Holocaust’s horrors home.

But with this September marking 74 years since the war ended, museum officials are concerned with how to extend this precious resource for remembering the catastrophe. Most of the Holocaust survivors are in their last decade of being able to give their first-person testimony.

Now the Dallas museum and others across the country are benefiting from hologrammic technology, created by the USC Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, which allows them to preserve the images and voices of survivors in a way that brings them alive for museum visitors.

A hologram is a 3D photograph of a person that, when lit properly, captures the person’s physical presence. Hologrammic films assembled from thousands of these 3D images can bring to a darkened theater the person seemingly in full: “the way he taps his foot and moves his hand,” said Kia Hays, program manager of USC’s Dimensions in Testimony Interactive Experience, of the hologram of Glauben, which will be unveiled in a purpose-built theater this September.

Combined with a cutting-edge artificial intelligence program that can retrieve pre-recorded responses on a range of frequently asked-about topics, the hologram can make it seem as if the person is there.

The magic of saving Max Glauben for future generations is as difficult as it sounds.

For one, the technology is expensive, costing $2.5 million to record a single person.

The Dallas museum commissioned its hologram of Glauben to help debut a new, elaborately designed 55,000 square-foot home on nearby Houston Street, set to open Sept. 17 as the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum. In May of last year, Higgins was enmeshed in a six-year campaign to raise $71 million dollars for the new building, but fundraising was going well enough that she and her board of directors decided to add the cost of the hologram, if the USC Shoah Foundation approved their candidate.

Not every survivor is equal to the challenging process of making a hologram. Even those who are practiced storytellers (many survivors find it too painful to stir up memories) must go through a careful selection process by the Shoah Foundation to see if they are up to the rigors of spending a week being filmed from nine angles by 18 cameras, answering about 1,000 questions that the filmmakers anticipate visitors might ask during a 45-minute experience.

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Source: Religion News Service