I walked into the booth, and there she was. As large as life, as vivid and engaging as always, so realistic I wanted to reach out and hug her. My father's best childhood friend, Eva Schloss, was sitting there waiting to have a conversation with me. I'm used to meeting all sorts of people in Davos, but this caught me a little off guard.
Davos is famous for the high-level public figures, political, business and arts personalities, set-piece panels, high-level discussions and powerful conversations that take place over the course of the week. Equally impressive is the depth and range of live experiences the Forum curates to weave the humanities, art, science and technology into the programme. It is like the world’s best museum, open for just a week, featuring the world’s top cultural pioneers.
Eva is hosted by New Dimensions in Testimony, a project of the Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California. Eva’s testimony of her life and time at Auschwitz was recorded digitally, and the New Dimensions project allows real time interaction with Holocaust survivors. I sat and had a digitally-enabled conversation with this person very dear to me, and especially to my father who died not long ago.
Eva and my father were childhood friends in Vienna, although she was a couple of years older than him. While Eva spent the war in Auschwitz and other camps in Europe, my father's family escaped to Shanghai, China, and after the war, Australia. After the war, her mother married Anne Frank's father, and she credits him with the compassion and humanity that allowed her to recover from her wartime experiences. Her experiences became a play, And Then They Came for Me, which, in the space of an hour, explains the holocaust for children. The play tours schools, and Eva often accompanied it to answer questions of the children. My father stumbled upon it and got in contact, and subsequently produced the play for an Australian tour that Eva participated in. She became a close family friend, but we lost contact maybe 20 years ago.
Until this week, when I walked into the New Dimensions in Testimony exhibit in the Congress Hall in Davos. And there she was. Imagine my surprise.
New Dimensions is an ambitious project to record the experiences of survivors and generate them into powerful interactive experiences. Eva was filmed at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies light stage, capturing a 5-day long interview with 116 cameras so that in the future Eva's testimony can be displayed as a hologram.
In December 2015, Eva was asked over 1,200 questions about her experience, her life before the war, her life after the war, and her personal reflections. Those answers were integrated into a natural language processor that allows the user (a student, museum visitor, etc.) to ask their own question of Eva's testimony. Eva is one of 16 survivors filmed for New Dimensions in Testimony.
In Davos, the experience has been available to the world's leaders, opening minds not only to the direct experiences of those who experienced the horrors of the holocaust, but also to the potential of digital experiences to create new dimensions. "The wide range of participants in leadership from every continent who have seen the opportunity to experience these exciting new testimonies - finding new colleagues from Iran to United Arab Emirates and Nigeria to Bangladesh - demonstrates the universal power of testimony to touch hearts and open minds," said Stephen Smith, Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation.
The New Dimensions team reached out to Eva, and we are now chatting on email - a little bit of Davos magic.
What will it mean when we can talk to all our friends and family like this?