AI gives contemporary witnesses of the Holocaust a voice

Abba Naor

Abba Naor was born in Lithuania in 1928 and reports as a Jewish Holocaust survivor

Contemporary witnesses play an important role in remembering the consequences of the Holocaust. But the number of survivors who can still talk about this time is decreasing. Now artificial intelligence is coming to the rescue: a chatbot enables virtual dialogues with people who were persecuted during the Nazi era. The basis of this interactive experience is 3D video recordings of the contemporary witnesses, from which the AI ​​generates the appropriate answer passages.

The end of the Second World War and the Nazi era are now almost 80 years ago. Accordingly, there are very few people still alive who can talk about this time from their own perspective and experience. There are several projects underway around the world in which contemporary witnesses are recorded on video as they report on their experiences as persecuted and prisoners. But while students and interested adults can ask contemporary witnesses their questions during live encounters and exchange ideas take place, such video recordings inevitably remain one-sided and not very interactive.

Contemporary witness footage in 3D

An interactive online format is now intended to remedy this, in which AI-supported technology enables virtual dialogue with contemporary witnesses. These innovative online certificates were developed as part of the LediZ (Learning with Digital Certificates) project led by Anja Ballis from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. For this purpose, digital 2D/3D testimonies from Holocaust survivors have been recorded at the LMU Munich since 2008. Those persecuted as Jews or Sinti and Roma first report their stories, then answer up to 1,000 questions about their lives, their experiences and their time.

This is recorded using stereoscopic cameras that enable 3D recording. These video certificates can then be accessed, for example in school lessons. “In studies, we asked secondary school youth about Abba Naor’s testimony using a questionnaire and qualitative interviews. A central result is that the learners are moved by the story in the sense of narrative immersion, even though they are aware of the media nature of the presentation,” report Ballis and her colleagues.

…supplemented by interactive question options

What’s special, however, is that, almost like a video conference, you can ask the witnesses your own questions via microphone or by entering text. The online tool also suggests possible questions – for example about the family of Jewish Holocaust survivor Abba Naor or his experiences in a concentration camp. “The question asked orally is converted into text and transmitted to a language processing system – Google Dialogflow,” says the project handout. The system, based on artificial intelligence, then searches for a suitable answer to the question in the pre-recorded video sequences. If this is found, the contemporary witness responds in the form of this video sequence.

According to the researchers, such interactive formats can help convey the consequences and background of the Holocaust, especially to the younger generation. “By introducing students to Abba Naor’s story in individual dialogue, we want to make a contribution to ensuring that the atrocities of the Holocaust are not forgotten,” says Christina Sanchez-Stockhammer from Chemnitz University of Technology. Thanks to the three-dimensional recording and interactivity, you still have the opportunity to participate directly in their experiences even after the witnesses have died.

For a contemporary witness, Abbo Naor, Sanchez-Stockhammer and her team have already created an English version to supplement the German version. “We find Abba Naor’s memories so important that we want to share them with the whole world. That’s why we translated it into English,” explains Christina Sanchez-Stockhammer from Chemnitz University of Technology. “Thanks to the subtitles, many more people can understand his message. At the same time, Abba Naor’s voice directly conveys his emotions.” This means that the interactive digital certificate can now also be used in English lessons at schools and universities, for example.

Source: LMU Munich, Chemnitz University of Technology; Project website: LediZ (Learning with digital certificates)

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