by Hank Koransky, Upper School History Teacher
I've been using Holocaust Survivor Testimony in the classroom since 2010, when I was trained by the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation, along with 60 other teachers from around the country, to use its archive of Survivor testimonies. After Steven Spielberg directed Schindler's List in 1995, he provided the seed money for the Shoah Foundation so that Survivor testimony could be recorded before there were no more Survivors left to leave a living record of the horrors of the Holocaust. The result was the Shoah Foundation's remarkable archive of over 50,000 testimonies, available for scholarly use. The Shoah Foundation is part of the Department of Education at USC.
For my Global Justice course, students create a 5-minute original video integrating clips from testimony that they have researched and collected from the archive. They access this enormous database through key-word search, gradually limiting and editing down the clips they select into a presentation that answers a pre-selected question about the Holocaust. The process is fascinating, mesmerizing, and as one can imagine, difficult to absorb without becoming emotionally affected.
At the end of last school year, I was contacted by the Shoah Foundation through a Brentwood parent about a new technique of accessing testimony through simulated oral responses from the Survivor him/herself to search questions. In other words, the Survivor would appear on-screen and orally answer a question. This was new technology that was still in the test phase, and the Shoah Foundation wanted to know if they could pilot a test in my Global Justice class. Of course, I agreed.
Since we did not know what to expect, everyone was a little nervous as the Shoah Foundation set up the equipment for the class, which met in the MPR that day. Mr. Boccuzzi and Ms. Gonzalez sat in. The first image we saw was that of Survivor Pinchas Gutter sitting on a stool. A student asked a tentative first question and Pinchas sprung to life, giving a brief response that was a fairly close answer to what had been asked. We all gasped. How could he do this? Everyone was talking. Quiet was restored, which was essential to the question-asking. A second and third question were also answered. Another question drew this response from Pinchas: "I don't understand what you are asking. Please ask your question again." The Shoah Foundation people took copious notes. This was as much of a learning experience for them as it was for us. As we all adjusted to this amazing use of artificial intelligence, the questions started flying. It did require silence before each question, and sometimes Pinchas gave an answer he had already given to a previous question, but by the end of class every student had asked at least one question, and most had asked several.
It was not clear when or how extensively the Shoah Foundation intended to put this new technology to work, but we all left with a sense of wonder and excitement at this amazing and wonderful example of AI.