‘They totally forget that he’s not real’
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‘They totally forget that he’s not real’

Stockton University, the state Holocaust Commission, and Shoah Foundation join forces to offer interactive exhibit

A high-school student holds a question he plans to ask a Holocaust survivor at the interactive display now being tested at Stockton University. (Sara & Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center at Stockton University)
A high-school student holds a question he plans to ask a Holocaust survivor at the interactive display now being tested at Stockton University. (Sara & Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center at Stockton University)

Why doesn’t he have a number tattooed on his arm? And what’s that bracelet he’s wearing, a student from Pleasantville High School in South Jersey asked Holocaust survivor Ed Mosberg of Parsippany.

Mr. Mosberg held up his arm to show that the student was right. He did not have a tattoo. That’s because unlike his wife, Cesia, who survived Auschwitz, Mr. Mosberg was consigned to many other camps, including Mauthausen, but he never walked under the sign lying that Arbeit macht frei at Auschwitz until after liberation. And the tattoos were specific to Auschwitz, he said.

Instead, “he waits for what felt like minutes but maybe was only 40 seconds,” Gail Hirsch Rosenthal, the executive director of the Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center at Stockton University in Galloway Township, said. “And then he holds up his other arm, and his lip goes down a little bit, and you could see the emotion. And then he holds up his other arm, the one with the bracelet. And he says ‘I never take off this bracelet. I’ve had it off only twice, for the jeweler to fix it. It is my numbers from Mauthausen. They are always with me. They are part of me, and I am part of them.”

The students were palpably affected, Ms. Rosenthal said. “You could have heard a pin drop. Really, you could have heard a pin drop in that room. It was amazing.”

In an extremely high-resolution image, Ed Mosberg seems to talk to students at Stockton University. (SARA AND SAM SCHOFFER HOLOCAUST RESOURCE CENTER AT STOCKTON UNIVERSITY)

Educators who devise curricula and teach about the Holocaust and genocide have learned that the most effective way to reach students is to have survivors talk to them. The power of that firsthand testimony is vivid and undeniable. When people who have lived through nightmare talk, when listeners realize that they are in the presence of suffering and survival, of the presence of horrifically remembered death and obvious life, they connect. Not only do they listen, they really hear.

But there are fewer Holocaust survivors every year. The camps were liberated 75 years ago, so most survivors who can remember what happened to them are in their 80s or 90s. They are a deeply valuable but dwindling resource.

Ed Mosberg is 94.

So that’s why the way that he was able to answer questions from the Pleasantville students at Stockton is so important, and so promising.

He wasn’t really there.

The students were at the launch of the Dimensions in Testimony Interactive Biography program at Stockton; a group of school leaders and other officials stood behind them as they asked questions and listened to answers. To everyone’s great sadness, Mr. Mosberg was not able to join them; Cesia, whom he had met before the war and found again after liberation, to whom he had been married ever since, had just died.

But he was there in extremely high-resolution video, answering questions, for the most part accurately. The technology that turned his interview into the interactive display that the students saw comes from the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation, founded by Steven Spielberg.

Stephen Draisin of Westwood, a member of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, helped bring the program to Stockton.

Students from Pleasantville High School ask questions. (Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center at Stockton University)

“I was at the Museum of Jewish Heritage” — that’s the one in lower Manhattan, with the view of the Statue of Liberty as she holds her torch over New York Harbor. “I was there to see another exhibition, and I walked past a darkened room. At first it looked like there was no one there, but then I saw a person sitting on a chair in the dark, all by himself. He was fidgeting, adjusting his tie, putting his hand through his hair.” He tried to talk to the man, but eventually he realized that it was an extraordinarily high resolution image of a survivor.

“I was really blown away by it.

“Because I’m on the state commission, I am always thinking about ways to provide tools for teaching about the Holocaust,” he continued. “Whenever I give a presentation about the Holocaust to a class, the students listen respectfully — but whenever a survivor speaks, they are riveted. You can see it. You can see them following as the survivor speaks.

“But once the survivors are gone, we lose that. But a hologram is as close as you can get to a person giving testimony.”

Because he’s been on the commission for about 30 years, Mr. Draisin, who is a lawyer, has many contacts. One of them is “Marvin Levy from Brooklyn, who was Steven Spielberg’s publicist. He’s worked for him for 40 years; he’s 93 years old now, sharp as a tack, and still works eight hours a day.” He’s a direct line to the Shoah Foundation, and through the foundation to Mr. Spielberg, who is, according to Mr. Draisin, “a very down-to-earth, really nice guy,” he said. The two met “at a Panera Bread in New York, made small talk for 10 minutes, and he said ‘You might want to know why I wanted to met with you,’ and I said, ‘It had occurred to me,’ and he said, ‘We want to try a prototype in New Jersey.’

“I nearly fell off my chair.”

That was eight months ago, Mr. Draisin said; “This really moved quickly.”

The program is a beta test. It’s not perfect. Not every answer was on target, although most were. There are 2,500 answers programmed into it.

“Not all the answers were right — that’s why this is a prototype,” Mr. Draisin said. “There are bugs that have to be worked out. Sometimes the survivor misunderstood the question” — note that he said “the survivor,” not “the program” or “the tech” — and he answered incorrectly, but for the most part he responded directly to the questions he was asked.

“The kids felt that they were being talked to directly by the person who was not actually there.”

The interactive display is not exactly the same as the one Mr. Draisin saw at the museum, he said. “The one in the musuem is more lifelike. This screen is flat. It’s more portable and cheaper.

One Pleasantville High School student’s queries. (Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center at Stockton University)

“But it is so high definition that you really have to look at it to see what you are looking at. And to make it even more lifelike, he is never sitting entirely still. He is scratching his back, fidgeting with his shirt, blinking, sighing. Moving. For all intents and purposes this is a person sitting there, not a picture. He maintains his fidgeting until you ask him a question, and then he shifts into answer mode.”

Mr. Draisin knew that it looked like the students forgot that they weren’t talking — or maybe Skyping or Facetiming — with a real person, but just to be sure, once it was over, he asked them. “They didn’t consult with each other, but they all had the same answer,” he said. “They felt that he was talking directly to them.

“It’s a much better teaching mechanism than reading about it in a book or listening to a lecture. They felt more personally engaged by this person who isn’t there.”

The program is at Stockton “because they have a really good Holocaust center there,” he added.

Kori Street, left, and Gail Rosenthal are at the launch at Stockton last week. (SARA AND SAM SCHOFFER HOLOCAUST RESOURCE CENTER AT STOCKTON UNIVERSITY)

Ms. Rosenthal, the center’s executive director, said that the center, which focuses on Holocaust and genocide studies, was one of the first in the state, and among the biggest. “We teach 21 courses each semester; that’s more than any other school.” The program’s genesis also is inspirational, she said.

“In the 1980s, we had a university president, Dr. Vera King Farris, who was remarkable,” she said. “She was the youngest of 13 children; her mother was legally blind and worked as a domestic.” Dr. Farris was brilliant, and her talents were recognized early; “she spent most of high school in study hall” — Atlantic City High School had nothing left to offer her — “and she graduated when she was 15.” She earned a doctorate in zoology and taught it before she became a college administrator; when she took the presidency of Stockton, she became the first African-American woman in New Jersey, and one of the first in the country, to hold such a position at a public college.

“Dr. Farris said that one of the first times she saw her mother cry was when she took a book about the Holocaust off the shelf and her mother told her not ever to forget the story of the Holocaust.”

Dr. Farris remembered. When she was approached with the idea of the Holocaust center, she ran with it, and it grew.

One of the center’s programs now offers dual high school credits; “more and more colleges are looking for dual high school credit rather than AP programs,” Ms. Rosenthal said. (AP is Advanced Placement.) “It’s been going strong in math and science for a number of years.” It involves college professors acting as mentors, working with high school teachers who have advanced degrees in the mentors’ subject areas. “They work as a team, and at the end of the school year, the students have earned college credits.

“We offer college credits at the Holocaust center, and we work with 30 schools, mostly in south Jersey,” she continued. “The teachers have faculty mentors, and the students take Holocaust and genocide studies for what equals either one semester or a full year. If they are Title I students, they earn the college credit for free; otherwise they pay just $100. That is far less expensive than at a college, and we rarely get a student who comes back after graduation to tell us that the college they’re going to will not accept the credit.”

Now, students in these classes will come to Stockton to talk to Mr. Mosberg. “We are an active beta testing site, and we will have a three-year agreement,” Ms. Rosenberg said. The interactive display will be at the center during that time.

One of the students came to talk to her after interacting with the exhibit. “This young lady said, ‘I live in Manahawkin.’ That’s about 40 miles from here. I said, ‘Oh, that’s great,’ and I’m thinking why is she telling me this? And then she says, ‘I’m telling you this because it’s not so far, so can I bring my mother to meet Ed? None of us has ever met a Holocaust survivor before.’

“That was very powerful.”

Steven Draisin of Westwood, a longtime member of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, speaking at the launch, was moved by the intensity of the students’ attention. (SARA AND SAM SCHOFFER HOLOCAUST RESOURCE CENTER AT STOCKTON UNIVERSITY)

Of everything that Mr. Mosberg told them, “one of the things that surprised them the most is that there were no other survivors in his family,” Ms. Rosenberg said.

“One of the students asked a question that probably only a kid would ask. He asked, ‘Did you ever think of escaping?’ And he answered. He said, ‘No, we were overwhelmed.’ It was not an easy survival. He was ill several times.

“Another question that only a kid would ask was ‘Did you have any friends from the war?’ He answered that one too. Yes, he said; he does have one friend from the war. The kids couldn’t get over that even though they live in different parts of the country, they contact each other every day.

“He told them that family is everything, and that struck a chord with them.

“He told them that luck was a very big part of his survival, and he told them that he does not forgive.”

The students come from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, and none of them are Jewish. None of that matters. “They are all so respectful. It was like the person is really there.”

Kori Street, whose doctorate is in history, is the Shoah Foundation’s senior director of programs and operations; she works in Los Angeles, but she came to New Jersey for the launch.

What the studuents see is a “really high-definition display,” she said; although the displays in museums commonly thought of as holograms, they’re not. “The interactivity uses natural language processing that allows users to ask questions and have them answered accurately,
 she said.

“The display can answer pretty much any question that’s asked of it. If survivors are asked something that wasn’t part of their experiences they have off-topic responses, just like you or I would have. If he’s asked about the Superbowl, he would say something like ‘That’s not something I could answer,’ although Ed Mosberg sort of does answer the question. ‘Any team but the Vikings,’ he’d say. If someone asks him about hiding with the Bielskis, he’d say ‘That was not my experience.’”

The Shoah Foundation developed the technology; at first it worked with the Conscious Display and the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, and since then it’s “transitioned to a new system,” Dr. Street said. “We’ve been working on it for a little over eight years.

Survivor Aaron Elster stands in front of his image at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie.
(ILLINOIS HOLOCAUST MUSEUM AND EDUCATION CENTER)

“We decided that one of our key methodologies was testimony-based education, and so our director of education started to think about how we can do this for schools, in a way that lowers obstacles to access.” In other words, “how can we make it cheaper?” Museums can have exhibits “in fancy theaters, with a fancy flow display.” That’s wonderful but prohibitively expensive for secondary schools or even colleges. “So we simplified the display and created a more cost-effective, more focused program around it, with a particular educational outcome.

“We got some support for it this year, so working with the New Jersey Holocaust Commission, we figured out how to pilot it and make it accessible, so that instead of costing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, we can bring it in at a few thousand dollars a year, and for more students.”

The system that the foundation used eight years ago basically is the one it uses now, “but we are continuing to refine it as we move forward,” Dr. Street said. “We are capturing the testimony with multiple angles and multiple cameras. We capture it volumetrically, so that someday we can show it in 360 degrees.”

As they work to refine the system, technology also keeps refining itself — and then sometimes it just makes huge leaps forward.

The work that she and her colleagues are doing “allows us to use fewer cameras and fewer camera angles, because they give us more coverage. Our earlier system was limited by how much data we could capture on a video card. That has increased greatly. Now we have to try to keep up with filming and processing technologies.”

The interviewing process takes five days, Dr. Street said, and it’s challenging. “I can’t imagine sitting in the same position in a chair for many hours every day for that many days. That is both physically and emotionally exhausting.”

It’s not coincidental that Ed Mosberg lives in New Jersey; it’s good to have survivors who are local, but it’s not necessary, Dr. Street said. Each survivor is different, and so is every region. “In some parts of the world it’s very important to make it local; in the United States that’s a little less important,” she said. That question — how important it is for testimony to come from survivors who are local to the students — is one of many that the foundation is studying, she said.

(CANDLES HOLOCAUST MUSEUM)

Although most of what the students working with the interactive display learn is about the Holocaust, life in prewar Europe, and how survivors rebuilt their lives, there is another important lesson that the Shoah Foundation wants them to learn. “As it becomes more and more rare for a survivor to be in classrooms, we are providing a reasonable replacement,” Dr. Street said. “We want something that engages students’ curiosity, and gives them the opportunity to ask respectful questions and to develop their own voices. That’s how they can have the ongoing experience that is so important.”

The exhibit provides that opportunity because “it is so real,” she said. “The students totally forget that these are not real people. When they leave, they say ‘bye.’

It’s not just students who think that, she added. “I have seen people so sure that they are watching real people on camera that they try to see where in the museum they are hiding. Literally looking for the person behind the curtain.

“We have a display in the office, and it feels to us like the survivors who are displayed there are in the room with us. You will see people trying to talk to them. They totally forget that they are not real.”

The program is open to all schools, and it’s aimed at fifth graders through high school seniors. Teachers and administrators can learn more by calling Stockton’s Holocaust Resource Center at (609) 652-4699.

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