The crowd that gathered at the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County on Jan. 18 stared at a large screen on which an elderly woman was answering questions from Zachary Graulich, the center’s director of programs, who sat in the audience.
When Graulich asked the woman a question, she answered. In this age of advanced communication technology, it didn’t seem like much — except for the fact that the woman, Holocaust survivor Ruth Mermelstein, died in October 2022.
It was the first of many testimonies to come that evening by way of artificial intelligence.
Graulich posed a question to the Mermelstein on the screen, “What are the most important lessons you’ve learned about humanity?”
“The most important lesson about humanity is to be kinder to each other,” she said, “to look out for each other and don’t let people get away with nasty things.”
Stories like hers and other Holocaust survivors are no longer just archived at the center. HMTC is offering a new interactive approach for educators and students utilizing artificial intelligence.
Education about the Holocaust is primarily the historical study of the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by Nazi Germany and its collaborators.
Students often learned about the atrocities committed during that time by reading first-hand accounts or hearing them from survivors. But as the events of World War II and the Holocaust fall further into the past and the last survivors die, there will no longer be anyone able to share the atrocities they either witnesses or experienced themselves.
To keep the stories of Holocaust survivors alive for generations to come, the Glen Cove center presented a project involving artificial intelligence and survivor stories.
The testimonies were uploaded to StoryFile, a software that lets people create videos which “reply” to viewers’ questions, using artificial intelligence to play relevant video clips as responses.
“You feel like they’re really there.” Meris First, the center’s secretary, said.
First said children will always choose to speak to a survivor given the opportunity.
Storytellers like Dana Arschin, former reporter and anchor for Fox 5 News, have taken the initiative to sit down with remaining survivors to collect their stories. Arschin has interviewed 20 survivors so far.
She asks biographical questions about their life before, during and after imprisonment. But what’s more important, she said, is to let survivors tell their stories.
“I really let the interview go in the direction that feels right,” Arschin explained.
Anyone wishing to learn more about the Holocaust can come to the center to experience the artificial intelligence program. They can ask both historical and personal questions to survivors.
Arschin is taking as many testimonies as she can, including that of Sami Steigmann, 83, one of the youngest remaining survivors of the Holocaust. Steigmann was imprisoned between 1941-1944 and was subject to medical testing when 1 1/2 years old. He still feels varying levels of pain in his head, neck, shoulders and back as a result of those experiments.
Steigmann said that because of his young age, he never felt like he belonged to any organizations benefiting children of the Holocaust because he wasn’t separated from his family.
After joining the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, he got his first assignment to speak to sixth graders. Steigmann said that even though he didn’t approach the students with a particular narrative, a sixth grader ultimately changed his perspective about Holocaust education.
In a letter, the student wrote that she felt overwhelmed by Steigmann’s experience. She promised that when she had children someday she would share his story with them.
“Because of her, I have decided to dedicate the rest of my life to reach as many people as I can nationally and internationally,” Steigmann said.
His experience is not unheard of. The Nazi regime used medical research to shape its racial definitions and rationalize its discriminatory policies.
Nursing students will also be utilizing the center’s artificial intelligence program as lessons in empathy. The traditional healing work of doctors and nurses often conflicted with the policies of the Nazi regime, something that Sheri Vishnick, a volunteer at the museum hopes to emphasize.
The program will talk about nursing during the Holocaust and connect the lessons learned from it to potential ethical dilemmas nurses might face today, she said.
“Whatever field of nursing they may go into, you’re dealing with human beings,” Vishnick said. “Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and understanding,”
The museum is currently accepting donations to help fund educational programs and continue their work with artificial intelligence.
For further information, or to schedule a tour call (516) 571-8040 or email firstname.lastname@example.org