'Artificial intelligence allowed me to talk to a Holocaust survivor. Here's what it was like.'

One lovely morning this week, I visited the Sydney Jewish Museum, keen to learn more about Jewish history.

It's an experience hundreds of thousands of people have had at the museum – bearing witness to the testimonies of Holocaust survivors, and their stories of courage and resilience in the face of evil.

Often, museums are a place where historical facts are told - we're talking artifacts, documents, survivor's of major world events recounting their stories.

But we rarely get to hear the personal side of these accounts - the feelings, the emotions. Their reflections on justice, forgiveness, hate and how their experiences impacted the rest of their lives. Now a new exhibit at the Museum, is offering exactly this through the power of artificial intelligence technology.

And one of the three survivors who you can ask questions to is none other than Eddie Jaku. He is best known for his best-selling book The Happiest Man On Earth.

Eddie Jaku speaks to Mamamia about his life. Post continues below. 

Video via Mamamia. 

Before Eddie passed away in 2021 at 101 years old, he did a significant amount of work with the Sydney Jewish Museum. And one particular project he was keen to be a part of was the Museum's Reverberations: A Future for Memory exhibit, created in collaboration with the USC Shoah Foundation. 


It's an interactive, high-tech exhibition that's been years in the making. 

You can immerse yourself in conversation with the interactive biographies of three Holocaust survivors: Olga Horak, Yvonne Engelman, and Eddie Jaku, which use artificial intelligence (AI) technology to respond directly to any question you ask them.

With Eddie, I asked about his life before the war. He grew up in Leipzig Germany, he loved his family and they considered themselves, "German first, Jewish secondly".

Throughout the Holocaust, he faced extreme atrocity - he was beaten, taken to Buchenwald concentration camp, from which he managed to escape, and was then incarcerated and put on a train to Auschwitz. He managed to escape on route through the floorboards of the train and returned to Belgium to hide. Then he was caught and arrested again, and sent back to Auschwitz. 

His family was murdered in a gas chamber, he was later sent on a death march. Miraculously, he managed to escape, again, hiding in a cave in the forest, only eating slugs and snails. In June 1945, an American tank rescued him. The war was over. In 1950, he immigrated to Australia with his wife for a new start.

When I asked Eddie if he ever returned to visit Germany, his answer was telling.


"No. I cannot and will not forgive or forget. I was a survivor and witness to the biggest tragedy in the history of humankind. I could never understand how a country of the most intelligent, most education, most cultural country in Europe could use brutality on their own people," he said. 

"So I cannot go there. And I avoid buying anything German, and I never bought a German car in my life."

A visitor interacting with the AI interactive biography of Holocaust survivor Eddie Jaku.


I then asked Olga what it was like to be separated from her family.

Olga was just 14 when the war broke out. In 1942, Olga's sister was transported to Auschwitz. It was the last time Olga ever saw her. Soon after, Olga was separated from her father and grandmother who were taken directly to the gas chambers. 

"I can express myself only as of having been very sad, shocked and surprised. At that stage we actually did not realise what to expect. It happened so fast. A very ugly situation - very ugly indeed," she said while shaking her head.

"Nobody from my immediate family survived very sadly."

Shannon Biederman is Senior Curator at the Sydney Jewish Museum. 

She says part of what she loves most about platforming survivors' testimonies is getting to hear a wide range of perspectives and share them with the public.

"Holocaust survivors aren't a monolith - they're a group of individuals who think the same on some things and differently on others. You see this in particular when it comes their thoughts on revenge, justice and forgiveness," she tells Mamamia

In total, Biederman and the team have interviewed 43 Holocaust survivors for this exhibit. The vast majority of survivor stories are projected through videos visitors can watch, and then three of the survivors are part of the interactive biographies aspect of the exhibit.


"As far as I know, this is the only interactive AI exhibition that focuses solely on survivor testimony in the world. The aim is to make it feel one-on-one and personal for the visitor - they can ask questions to the screen which shows the survivor sitting in a chair, who is reacting and responding to their question almost instantaneously. It builds a connection in a way," Biederman says.


So how does the AI behind it actually work?

Each of the survivors was interviewed and filmed over the course of a week for over 20 hours, and asked 1000 questions. Using AI and next generation language processing, the technology was trained to respond to audience questions - like the questions the survivor was asked during the filming process. 

It enables visitors to ask questions of the survivor about their life experiences, and hear responses in real-time, lifelike conversation. 

And to keep the technology up to date, Biederman and the team regularly test the software and feed it further paraphrased questions of the 1000 initial questions they asked the survivor at the time of the interview. For example, if someone were to say to the interactive biography of Olga: "Where were you born?" or "Where did you grow up?" the AI would recognise the similarity in the question and provide the relevant answer Olga gave at the time of her interview.

A question some are wondering is whether this might be how history is told to younger generations? Will we rely on AI to teach us about important parts of history?

Recently there was a bit of a kerfuffle over a new app that launched called 'Historical Figures'. It was an AI chatbot app that allowed users to converse with bots designed to simulate the perspectives of notable people from history. 


Soon after the launch, it was apparent the technology this app used opened itself up to misinformation. It was assuming the perspectives of notable people from history, without the historical evidence or testimony to back it up. 

The difference however between this technology versus the technology used in the Museum's exhibit, is that the exhibit does not use generative AI.

"When you hear answers from the survivors in these interactive biographies, it's them in their own words sharing their own feelings and stories. It's not generative, it's just their answer to one of the thousand questions we asked them during the filming process," Biederman explains.

"It's been so special to see the response - from both visitors and the survivors and their families. When the time comes that there are sadly no more survivors left to tell their own stories, this exhibit will help make sure their stories aren't forgotten."

Shannon Biederman. Image; Supplied.


As Ilana Gertskis - the Museum's Head of Marketing - tells Mamamia: "Interactive biographies like these don't replace what's already in museums. You can't rely solely on testimony for a full picture of historical context. But being able to have access to this testimony and these survivor memories for generations to come - that's very special."

Amazingly, lots of other groups have been invited in to see the technology the Museum is using to capture survivor testimony.

"We've had a few First Nations groups come through, as well as Kokoda Track veterans, who are interested to see how their stories could be told and preserved through means like this," says Biederman.

Although sadly Eddie Jaku has now passed on, his family have been able to see the exhibit and interact with it.


"Before we launched it, we brought his family in for a private viewing. And Eddie was so well-loved and known, we've also had fans of his book come in and get to ask him questions. There's a lot of emotion," Biederman says.

Gertskis says that another one of the survivors interviewed for the testimony videos died a year or two ago, and this survivor's daughter works at the Museum as a guide.

"The survivor passed away a couple of years ago. While the exhibit has been on, the daughter has spoken about her father on guided tours, and sat and asked him questions through the interactive biography. That was really powerful. It's been lovely to see the impact these interactions have had on visitors - whether before visiting they knew nothing about Jewish history, or they have a family connection."

The final question I had to ask Eddie was what happiness means to him.

"Happiness is satisfaction. If you're satisfied with your state of life and state of health, that's happiness," he says.
"Everything in my life and what I tried to do was well done and good. I believe I was put here to be happy." 

If you would like to visit the Reverberations: A Future for Memory exhibit at the Sydney Jewish Museum, you can purchase tickets here

Feature Image: Sydney Jewish Museum.

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