Pleasantville High School senior Ernest Howard had a question for Shoah survivor Ed Mosberg. In his Holocaust and genocide class, Ernest learned about Mosberg’s torture and imprisonment in multiple concentration camps and how the Morris Plains resident witnessed the murders of friends and relatives.
The question Ernest asked was practical in nature: “What kind of meals were you served in Mauthausen?” And he received an honest answer, albeit not in person, from the 94-year-old survivor. The answer came from a hologram based on Mosberg’s likeness and the script came from five hours of interviews with the property developer.
“I always volunteered to serve the coffee in the morning and the soup in the evening,” answered the Mosberg hologram on a projection screen. “That way, I got the first coffee and the first soup with whatever vegetables were there. I also cleaned the pots and was able to get the coffee grounds to eat and whatever vegetables were left from the soup.” Mosberg’s hologram was seated in a chair. He wore dark blue slacks and a blue-and-white-striped polo shirt; his hands moved, amplifying how he expressed himself.
“I felt like he was looking right at me while he was talking,” Ernest said to the 100 people assembled during a demonstration of the Dimensions in Testimony Interactive Biography Program at the Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center at Stockton University in Galloway on Feb. 12.
The educational exchange between Ernest and Mosberg is a program of the University of Southern California (USC) Shoah Foundation. The Dimensions in Testimony program, which is already utilized by museums such as the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, is now being rolled out to the educational sector. Stockton University was the only U.S. college chosen to test and pilot the program in a three-year study.
“It’s one thing to read [about the Holocaust] in the history books, but now students get to interact with an eyewitness,” said Gail Rosenthal, executive director of the Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center. “They see the emotion and feel connected with the survivor and their testimony.”
As the population of Holocaust survivors dwindles, and fewer remain to tell their stories, the USC Shoah Foundation, started by film producer Steven Spielberg, has developed 40 other interactive holograms of Holocaust survivors to assure their life stories remain alive in perpetuity.
“This is so important because it’s keeping Holocaust education alive and taking it to the next level,” said Rosenthal. “The worry of having no eyewitness records of survivors is gone.”
Rosenthal said teachers whose classes are participating in the Stockton test run are required to learn about Mosberg in advance, prepare questions, and then hold a post-event lesson on what they learned.
The technology used is a work in progress, according to the foundation. Basically, the system uses common language and picks up on key words to return the most relevant answers.
“We still have a few glitches to work out with some questions,” said Kori Street, the USC foundation’s senior director of programs and operations, who mentioned that some detailed queries about Mosberg’s background and Holocaust experiences fail to generate a response. “It’s like Siri or Alexa, sometimes questions are not answered…. We see what’s going on in the system and train it. The more questions we add, the better the system gets in terms of its accuracy and responding.”
To record the information for the hologram Mosberg spent five days in Los Angeles. “We asked in excess of 1,000 questions,” said Street. “We asked general questions about the Holocaust, his life before and about his life today. We also asked hundreds of questions about his specific experience.”
“What is being done with this will certainly further Holocaust education,” said Karen Small, managing director of Rutgers University’s Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life.
A 2017 documentary, “116 Cameras,” was made about interviewing survivor Eva Schloss for the USC Shoah Foundation’s hologram project. Small, who is also the founding director of the Rutgers Jewish Film Festival, plans to include “116 Candles” in the 2020 festival this fall.
“We can’t let the message of the Holocaust go when all survivors are gone,” said Small. “This program will assure the message stays alive.”
The Reverend Lawrence E. Frizzell, director and associate professor in the Jewish-Christian Studies Graduate Program at Seton Hall University, praised Stockton’s Holocaust education program.
“Stockton has always been one of the leaders in Holocaust education, and they have always done an excellent job,” said Frizzell, who hosts a weekly radio program “The Kinship of Catholics and Jews” on WSOU (FM 89.5).
Frizzell said new technology could inform students and the public at-large. “Technology is good if we follow guidelines and use it for good.”
The Holocaust center’s goal is to eventually invite all students in New Jersey, from grades five-12, to learn from the Mosberg hologram.
Ernest’s history teacher, Kelsey Shockley, sees an important value in the interactive program. She said, “The ultimate takeaway is why do things like the [Holocaust] keep happening and what can my class do to prevent things like this from happening.”