Emotional interaction against forgetting the past

The disappearance of contemporary witnesses is changing the way we remember the horrors of National Socialism, the persecution of Jews and the Second World War. AI and video technology will enable us to talk to Shoah survivors even in the future. We discussed this with Sylvia Asmus from the German Exile Archive and ethics professor Judith Simon.

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Technologien gegen das Vergessen

Visible anti-Semitism has never been not present in Germany and is now on the rise again . That’s why particularly 9th November is the day to remember what happened on this day in 1938. After all, the November pogroms marked the “beginning of the industrial extermination of Jews”, explains the host of the evening, Marcus Richter. This is precisely why the accounts of contemporary witnesses should not be forgotten.

“Hello Kurt!” Sylvia Asmus greets her interview partner. Asmus is head of the German Exile Archive at the German National Library and is responsible for developing the virtual interactive interviews with Holocaust survivors. “Good afternoon,” replies 93-year-old Kurt Maier via a screen. “May I ask you a few questions?” “Ask!” This is how the conversation begins in the video interview. However, this is not an ordinary recorded conversation, but a video interview based on an AI-supported form of questioning. Kurt Maier was born in Kippenheim in 1930 and fled into exile with his parents to the USA at the age of 11, where he still lives today. In the virtual conversation with him, you learn about his personal life story – for example, he describes how he hid under an upturned bathtub in the attic with his mother and brother, when the Nazis destroyed the windows of their home by stone throwing during the November pogroms.

Developing empathy even via a screen

Of course, we are not talking directly to Kurt Maier, but to a computer, Judith Simon clarifies. For the ethics professor, who conducts research into information technologies, it is important to formulate correctly what the interview is about. In the end, it is a simulation – although the real Kurt Maier was interviewed, the technology merely simulates a real conversation. The task of the Exile Archive is to “have an impact on society”, says Asmus. With the two interactive interviews that have been produced so far, she wants to “evoke emotions”, the aim is to get to know the person better, even to develop empathy, as a personal connection is a better way to combat forgetting.

Simon also mentions that digital remembrance culture, but also any other form of remembrance, has pitfalls and it is therefore important to point out that personal experiences may have gaps. “How people remember can contradict factual knowledge, but it doesn’t have to,” says Asmus. When developing the interviews, it was important to make it clear where Kurt Maier has gaps in his memory – he says so himself in the interview. Nevertheless, the aim was to get to know and preserve his personal view of the past.

  • Claudia Höhne / Körber-Stiftung

The way we experience history will change

It took a long period of preliminary research before the interactive virtual interviews were ready for use. Asmus explains that she and her team not only analyzed what young people most frequently ask when interviewing contemporary witnesses, for example, but also came up with a total of 900 questions. Kurt Maier was interviewed and recorded in a studio in Washington for five full days. The technology was then tested with around 80 test groups in a beta phase until it was able to reliably filter out the right keywords from all possible questions in order to deliver the right answer from Kurt Maier. Today, interested parties can talk to two Holocaust survivors in this way in the German Exile Archive, but also online. For Simon, it is clear that this is not the end of digital remembrance culture, but that it will continue to evolve and use new technologies. She believes that the “nature of experience” will represent a significant change in the culture of remembrance in the future. Immersive technologies will play an increasingly important role, making it possible to experience the past in a completely different way. “We live in a time when it would be good not to be oblivious to history,” Simon emphasizes again at this point, making it clear how important it is to preserve the stories of Shoah survivors.

Asmus and her team have already toured with the two interviews available so far – they have also traveled to Kurt Maier’s home town. People who know him have had virtual conversations with him. She says that the reactions have been consistently positive and that people have felt connected to him, even though they know they are not sitting opposite him in real life. This is precisely why Asmus believes that this type of technology can also ensure that we do not forget the Holocaust in the future – because the technology will remind us in an emotional way of what happened.

  • Claudia Höhne / Körber-Stiftung