The profound weirdness of the Shoah Foundation’s hologram effort

Eva Kor is still alive. She’s in a small theater in the basement of a Holocaust museum outside Chicago on an early April night last year. She wears a luminescent blue sweater vest over an embroidered, wide-collared white shirt, a mismatching blue neck scarf, and a tomboyish, wiglike bowl cut that ices a pointed cupcake face. Her heart pumps blood. Her diminutive 85-year-old frame is folded into a seat in the front row, awaiting the evening’s entertainment, which is her, and her hologram.

Eva Kor is a Holocaust survivor. She is obviously more than that but for the purposes of our story she is mostly that: a twin to Miriam, who lived with one of Eva’s kidneys for many years but is now dead of cancer. Both sisters were orphaned at Auschwitz where they were inhumanely experimented on by Dr. Josef Mengele. Born in Romania, Eva eventually went on to found a small Holocaust museum in Terre Haute, Indiana, which she named CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors), and which she uses to tell the story of the Mengele twins, mostly to school groups, and preach forgiveness of the Nazis, with the goal of creating “a world free from hatred and genocide.”

The question of whether this mantle of survivorship was hers to take up or was imposed on her by chance, fate, the arrogant Nazi project that sought totalitarian control over fate, or some combination thereof, is an open one. Either way, you would be hard-pressed to find a more potent and dedicated example of the American ideal of the capital H capital S Holocaust Survivor than Eva Mozes Kor. Google her and you will see her identified as such in the many references to books, stories, documentaries, news segments, articles and other forms of her life story. In the mid-1960s, Eva published Echoes from Auschwitz: Dr. Mengele’s Twins: The Story of Eva and Miriam Mozes,and after the landmark NBC miniseries Holocaust aired in 1978, she brought out of the shadows the other Mengele twins. The YA version of her autobiography is titled Surviving the Angel of Death. In 1992, and again earlier this month, she was interviewed by 60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl. In 2003, her museum was firebombed; the culprit was never found. She is the subject of The Girl Who Forgave Nazis, CNN’s Incredible Survivors, and the Deutsche Welle documentary Victim of Nazi Twin Experiments in Auschwitz. Most recently, she starred in the award-winning documentary Eva.

Eva Kor is also one of 24 Holocaust survivors who have undergone a rigorous, historian-led, weeklong data “capture” in Southern California and elsewhere, during which she answered more than 2,000 questions while sitting inside a green-screened light stage surrounded by a dome containing 22 cameras. The grueling interview covered all aspects of her life, thoughts, feelings, values, and hopes before, during, and after World War II. This material was then compiled and processed into a high-definition interactive visual display that allows users to ask questions of the projection, and for the projection to play back an appropriate answer, through a mix of artificial intelligence, keywording, machine learning, and speech recognition—much as you might ask things of Siri or Alexa, if Siri or Alexa existed and had survived Nazi tortures. Each of the replies Eva provided during her 30 hours of interviews were matched by humans with more than two dozen variations on potential questions people might think to ask her, which leads to a seemingly inexhaustible supply of 30,000 question-and-answer pairings for Eva to provide to the museums or institutions that employ the proprietary hardware and license her content for a monthly fee.

Though these projections have been mislabeled “holograms” in the popular press, they are in fact, for now, “interactive biographies.” But their intention is holographic in nature, in that the goal is to present a simulacrum of a living person to whom future generations can direct questions and obtain firsthand testimony of the Holocaust. The more lifelike these projections can be made to seem, the more likely they are to “engage,” in the parlance of museum education, the attention of younger generations, sparking their curiosity and interest in learning a history that grows more distant by the day. The richer the data set collected from this person—the more that is harvested and recorded of their memories, and of their bodies, facial expressions, and mannerisms—the more they can be adapted to yet-to-be-invented technologies and thus become, in their way, immortal.

Tonight is Eva’s holographic premiere, and the room is full of patrons of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, which according to its lobby displays is “The Third Largest Holocaust Museum in the World!” The museum’s 40-seat Abe & Ida Cooper Survivor Stories Experience “holographic theater” darkens amid a nervous generalized murmur. A light rigging washes the cube with focused high-contrast beams that make the space glow a cold midnight blue. The images of an introductory film appear in the middle, hovering and layered—this is not a 3D movie, but something else.

A classic Hollywood-narrator baritone cantillates: “You will have the opportunity to meet and engage in a dialogue with a Holocaust survivor, someone who has survived one of history’s darkest chapters.” Music swells out of a powerful surround-sound speaker system in all corners of the stadium-tiered room as the rudiments of 1930s and ’40s world history are recounted … “Hitler comes to power” … “Kristallnacht!” with the sound of breaking glass as floating images of Jewish storefronts pan and zoom … a tonal shift in the music to something more upbeat, mixed with sounds of air raids: “the first European capital is freed of Nazi tyranny!” … “Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children found a way to survive the ghettos and camps,” the narrator says with swelling feeling. “Others hid. Still others lived in plain sight under false identities. These survivors have a story to tell. And feel a responsibility so those who didn’t survive will not be forgotten.”

The narrator shifts into a more didactic mode: “Now you will meet one of these survivors, virtually. You will have an opportunity to ask questions, to learn about their lives: how they survived. What happened to their friends and families. And how these survivors rebuilt their lives.” The intro film fades out over the sound of a ringing clarinet and plaintive hopeful strings.

Eva appears, on stage, wearing an outfit strikingly similar to what she has on in the audience. She seems to float just off the floor, though she is seated in a red padded chair tall enough to offset the foreshortening of her thighs. From any seat, the projection, perfectly lit, offers an illusion of 3D dimensionality countered with a faintly pixelated transparency, with hints of old RCA TV striation. Eva’s white hair blooms in a circle above her head. In her blue polyester pantsuit and waist-length neck scarf, she could be any of our grandmas, maybe a hobbyist painter or bridge player. Though ghostly, she is definitely there, in repose, looking straight ahead: a patient, open, welcoming elder, neither smiling too much nor too severe, just sitting there and waiting for you.

“Hello, Eva,” a docent at a podium near the stage says, clearly and carefully into her microphone, which feeds into the Eva machine.

Eva answers: “Hi, how are you?”

The room giggles nervously. The docent asks if anyone would like to ask a question. An audience member suggests one, which the docent repeats into her microphone, with a flatlander’s open vowels:

“When did you start telling your story?”

While Eva watches from the front row of the audience, Eva’s ghost recalls with near-human processing speed how she asked her local NBC affiliate in Indiana if the 1978 docudrama Holocaust was going to be aired where she lived, which led to a segment about her on the local TV news, which led to her first visit to a junior high school, “and I have not stopped speaking since.”

“Can you tell us about your life in Auschwitz?” the docent asks the floating projection.

“The vorst conditions that you can ever imagine in a horror film, were actually real in Auschwitz,” Eva says, her Romanian accent lingering in the voiced esses and tight syllables. “The barracks were filthy, infested with lice and rats. The supervisors were trained—and some of them took to enjoy—to be mean. We were starving to death continuously. On top of that, we were injected with lots of unknown germs, diseases, and they took a lot of blood from us. There were no parents, so we had to rely on our own inner strength. When I saw children on the latrine, and I realized that children were actually dying here, so I made a silent promise to myself that Miriam and I would walk off of this camp alive.”

“Can you describe Dr. Mengele?”

“The labs?” Eva says, before going on to describe the location where she spent most of her time at Auschwitz. The docent let her finish and then tried again.

“What do you remember about Dr. Mengele?” leaning in to the keywords.

“Mengele was very present,” Eva said, to the room’s relief, “and he had a gorgeous face, a movie star face. Five-foot-nine, dark hair, and the eyes, when I looked into his eyes, I could see nothing but evil.”

“What does forgiveness mean to you?”

“Forgiveness … means an act of self-healing, an act of self-liberation, and an act of self-empowerment.” Her speech has the measured cadence of performance, not conversation, but then she asks, “Now, do I have time for a longer answer?”

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