A friend sent me to YouTube to watch a past episode of 60 Minutes. Aired on April 5, 2020, it presented the use of technology to create the sensation of “interviewing” dead people.
A survivor of the Holocaust was the first person to be “interviewed” in front of twenty high-speed video cameras, under 6000 or so LED lights, over about a week. Every day, sitting in the same chair and wearing the same clothes, he answered about 2,000 questions that the developers had created.
Using those videos, a special artificial intelligence-based program stored, researched, edited, sorted, formatted, and then presented, in real time, the responses of the man as if he had been asked questions by a single “interviewer”, who, in this instance, happened to be Leslie Stahl.
What she saw in front of her was a man sitting in a chair with a black background, looking at her, and, when asked a question, seemed to respond to her as if he were really there. By this time the episode was filmed, however, the man had died; he now “lived” only in a world of recorded responses. Leslie Stahl proceeded to “interview” him, while the man responded to her as if she was sitting across from him in real time.
You can see this episode at https://youtu.be/D9tZnC4NGNg?t=1
[put your pointer over the underlined URL, hold down the Ctrl key, and click your mouse button]
It is well worth watching. It is, in fact, truly amazing. At the time of the episode, a total of twenty people had sat for hundreds of hours of videos, voice responses, and relationship creation. Needless to say, it can be anyone, not just those related to the holocaust, but the subjects do have to be alive at the time they are interviewed.
Remember the story about the sisters, Renee and Gerta, who were imprisoned at the Bergen-Belson concentration camp in 1944? Gerta was deaf and survived the camp by Renee continually watching over her during the year of their captivity. After liberation and moving to America, Renee married a Yale professor and the two of them were responsible for creating the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University.
It was with the same desire for preservation of witness testimony that the current project was begun and the technology developed. The 60 Minutes episode demonstrates a quantum leap in preserving Holocaust memories.
* * *
In January, I introduced a book titled A Train in Winter, by Caroline Moorehead. It is the detailed story of 230 women who were arrested and imprisoned in France for participating in Nazi resistance activities. After being initially held in an old castle outside of Paris, the 230 women were loaded into cattle cars and taken to Auschwitz.
The book follows these women, as a group and individually where possible, for the next year and 3 months, and then describes some of their lives afterwards. Only 47 of the 230 survived to return to France. At the time of her research, only 7 remained.
Like The Girl Who Escaped from Auschwitz, The Train in Winter is an impressive putting-it-all-together description of what it was like to be an inmate at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration/extermination camp. It is definitely not a fictionalized account, however. The book resists my saying that I “enjoyed” it, or was “amazed” by it, or even “disturbed” by it. I had to steel myself to accept the vicious evil that it portrayed and to keep on reading in spite of the inordinate suffering of the women. Skipping paragraphs seemed a sacrilege.
Everything is described without restraint and is yet well-told. All the daily-ness of the brutal and inhumane treatments, the starvation, the sicknesses and diseases, the violent punishments, the wanton killings, the immense suffering, plus the witnessing of the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children herded off the trains to be immediately gassed and their bodies burned. One of the French women was forced to work with Dr. Mengele as he experimented on his human guinea pigs, while some of the women worked to protect newly-arrived children who were twins and would have been destined for “research”.
This is not a bedtime book and it will not suffer readers who want to gloss over the details. But it does become engrossing and the sense of scale is mind-blowing.
The last chapters are important as Moorehead relates what happened to the women after they were liberated and returned to France.
“What all the women found almost hardest was how to find the words to describe what they had been through. Having imagined telling their families exactly what it had been like, they now fell silent. Often, as it turned out, the families did not really want to hear: the stories were too unbearable to listen to. ‘It wasn’t food that we wanted,’ Cecile would say. ‘It was talk. But no one wanted to listen.’ …..Strangers asked questions, then quickly changed the subject and began to recount the hardships of their own war…’It can’t be true. [one person said]. If it was, you wouldn’t have survived.’ She cried for three days; then she stopped talking. It was Helene who later told the others that she had met a woman who, seeing the numbers tattooed on her arm, said: ‘Oh, is that where you write your phone numbers? Or is it the new fashion?’”
The women returned, were reunited or not with family, perhaps married or remarried, found their children or perhaps had more. Marie-Claude Vailliant-Couturier gave evidence against the defendants at the Nuremburg Trials, while Adelaide Hautval, a French doctor required to work in the hospitals of Auschwitz, testified against Dr. Dering, a Polish prisoner gynecologist who performed thousands of sterilizations on prisoners without anesthetic.
They all suffered in one or more ways. Parents, husbands, brothers, sisters, and friends had died or disappeared; sons and daughters had moved on; houses, apartments, or farms sometimes no longer existed. Life, they found, did not have the same quality or meaning that they had grown to value. Time went on, but some memories remained.
In later years, when the French women gathered together, they would talk about why they survived. In the end, they always came back to the same two reasons: they had lived because each of them had been incredibly lucky, and because of the friendship between them. That friendship had protected them and made it easier to withstand the barbarity.
They had learned, they would say, the full meaning of friendship, a commitment to each other that went far deeper than individual liking or disliking; and they now felt wiser, in some indefinable way, because they had understood the depths to which human beings can sink and equally the heights to which it is possible to rise.
* * *
I am moving on from Holocaust stories and from researching the concentration and extermination camps of the Third Reich. I’m still betting that my trip to Poland and Germany in September will happen and I want to learn more of the general history of Eastern Europe.
I still have one more book to go, however. I read comic books throughout my childhood, but have not read what is now referred to as a graphic novel: a novel told through a comic book format. I want to read Maus, a story of a father and son experiencing the Holocaust, written and drawn by Art Spiegelman. This was one of the books at the center of attention last year when it was banned in some school literature classes and libraries.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.