AI means voices of Holocaust survivors will live on

With survivors sadly becoming fewer and fewer, Holocaust educators are using the latest technology to share their stories


Students at Sacred Heart Catholic School participating in a Testimony 360 lesson, a new interactive learning programme for delivering Holocaust education in UK schools created by the Holocaust Educational Trust (Photo: handout)

All of us can remember the first time we heard from a Holocaust survivor. For me, it was the remarkable Gena Turgel, who spoke at my secondary school with her husband, Norman, a British soldier who was at the liberation of Belsen. I was in awe and stunned as I listened to them speak. I had read books on the Holocaust. I knew about it – but Gena standing there in front of all of us and powerfully describing the horrors she endured – well, it stays with you forever.

Through the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust, tens of thousands of students every year, nearly all non-Jewish, get to experience this “life-changing” moment of hearing from a Holocaust survivor. For these students, the Holocaust stops being another chapter in their history textbook and becomes something that stays with them for their entire lives. It becomes living, breathing history – they can shake a survivor’s hand; they can smile at each other. Suddenly, a topic so huge and incomprehensible can be seen through the eyes of one person.

But there is no hiding the fact that the Holocaust is rapidly moving further into the past. Survivors, now in their eighties and nineties, are becoming fewer and frailer. The days when a survivor can jump on a train and speak to students in Sunderland, Exeter or Norwich are coming to an end.

The passage of time does nothing to diminish the need for their stories to be shared. In fact, as we reach this crossroads of Holocaust education, where the Holocaust is becoming increasingly questioned; when antisemitism continues to rise; when digital technology can so easily be used to distort the truth and where survivors are less able to share their stories, their voices – as witnesses and stalwarts of humanity – are more needed than ever.

At the Trust, we are ever more determined to ensure that this is not the end to those life-changing moments. That is why, this week, we have taken Testimony 360: People and Places of the Holocaust into the classroom. It’s a groundbreaking digital learning experience that will transform how the Holocaust is remembered, taught and learnt about in the UK.

Working with the USC Shoah Foundation, founded by Steven Spielberg, we have created a unique educational package, which brings together interactive digital testimony and virtual reality. This innovative programme will safeguard the testimony of survivors for the next generation and allow school pupils to continue interacting with Holocaust survivors, even when the survivors are sadly no longer with us. Of course, nothing can be the same as a Holocaust survivor standing in front of a classroom – but ensuring their voices live on, that young people have meaningful experiences when learning about the Holocaust is vital for the future.

Through Testimony 360, students will learn about the pre-war life of survivors such as Manfred Goldberg. They will ask him questions, and hear his real responses, in real time, thanks to AI. They will be able to delve into his relationship with his little brother, whose fate he sadly was never able to learn. They will be able to understand his day-to-day life in the ghetto. They will hear him talk about the moment that he was liberated, the moment that for him the war finally came to an end. 

After interacting with the survivor’s testimony, students will then use virtual-reality headsets to explore the key sites related to the testimony as they appear today. The students will see the street where Manfred grew up, the ghettos and camps where he was separated from his mother, and where he endured unimaginable horrors. And they will do all of this without leaving their classrooms.

We have already piloted this unique resource in schools across the country and have seen how this technology will revolutionise the world of Holocaust education, ensuring that those life-changing moments continue.

And while Holocaust education alone cannot and will not rid the world of antisemitism, this programme will ensure that future generations know where this hatred can and did lead. As we look at the world around us, this could not be more vital.

Karen Pollock is CEO of the Holocaust Educational Trust

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