Gutter sits before a greenscreen under a dome-shaped framework of motion capture devices
Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter being filmed onstage at USC (Photo/Courtesy USC Shoah Foundation)

Meet ‘Virtual Pinchas,’ the digital Holocaust survivor

Projected on a wall is an image of Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter. He sits on a red chair that floats in front of a black background. He nods slightly, patiently waiting for someone to speak to him.

When a question is asked through a computer microphone, Gutter comes to life. Depending on what he’s asked, he may recount anecdotes about his past, stories about the present or tales of survival.

“I survived because, I believe, providence watched over me,” Gutter says. “When we were taken to the death camp, my father told me that I must say I was 18 years old, because children were being murdered immediately. I was selected to be a slave laborer, and that’s how I survived the next two years.”

Pinchas Gutter is 85 and lives in Toronto, Canada. But he’s not the one answering questions. That’s left to his representative, Virtual Pinchas, a prototype in the USC Shoah Foundation’s New Dimensions in Testimony project. Virtual Pinchas can answer just about anything about Gutter’s Holocaust experience.

The technology is similar to Silicon Valley’s artificial assistants, such as Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. Push a button, ask a question, get an answer. In Virtual Pinchas’ case, the technology pulls answers from a battery of 1,900 questions the Shoah Foundation posed to Gutter while the cameras rolled.

The reason for the project could not be more stark: While in 1993 survivors numbered around 350,000, today that total has dwindled to about 100,000, according to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. The foundation has already archived more than 100,000 hours of survivor testimony.

Gutter is seated before a greenscreen, Smith stands with his arm around Gutter
USC Shoah Foundation executive director Stephen Smith with Pinchas Gutter (Photo/Courtesy USC Shoah Foundation)

Gutter’s filmed testimony served as the pilot for the program. He answered questions on a stage built at the University of Southern California and retrofitted with more than 50 cameras to capture Gutter at every possible angle. (Hollywood used the stage while filming “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” to generate an elderly version of Brad Pitt’s character.)

The foundation has gone through a similar process with 12 other survivors and will add more over time.

There are plans to install Virtual Pinchas in museums and deploy an internet version. An early version of the site is working already, but most don’t have fast enough broadband to make the experience of talking to Virtual Pinchas as fluid as intended.

“What’s happening now is that museums are coming to us and saying, ‘We’d love to have the interviews when they’re done, but can we have somebody from Houston, from Cleveland, from Seattle, that’s interviewed so that we’ve got a local person as well?’” said Shoah Foundation executive director Stephen Smith. “I’m anticipating we’ll have around 20.”

Virtual Pinchas can speak with total authority about his past: How he was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1932 to a Hasidic family. How Germany’s invasion in 1939 caused an irreparable rupture in his life. How his family died in the Holocaust.

He shares this information matter-of-factly:. “My parents and my [twin] sister were murdered in the gas chambers of the Majdanek death camp.”

Virtual Pinchas is not always a perfect listener, and sometimes the only way to get an answer is to rephrase the question. But the technology is cool and always improving. Eventually, Smith hopes to turn Virtual Pinchas into a 3-D hologram.

The project got rolling in 2009 when Smith’s wife, museum exhibition designer Heather Maio, conceptualized a way for educators to use projections of survivors who could answer questions in real time. That way, future generations that would never have the chance to speak with a survivor in person would have the opportunity to do so.

Eight years and $6 million later, the project has recorded 13 survivors and their stories, including the last living tie to Anne Frank, her stepsister Eva Schloss.

In addition to talking about the war, Virtual Pinchas is willing to expound on other topics, such as where he lives, how he got there, and even his relationship with God.

“After the Holocaust, I have something in me that you will find very peculiar, and that is that I allow myself to do things that are not exactly according to the law but I say that I have a very big [account] … I have a huge balance on my side. So if I do something that is not so 100 percent, I am allowed to do that because my account with God is always in my favor. So God has to look away a little bit.”

max cherney
Max A. Cherney

Max A. Cherney is a former J. staff writer.