I asked him, ‘How did you pass your time living in the attic for two years?’ The moderator pushed a button on the console and repeated the question, ‘How did you pass your time living in the Gorskiis’ attic for two years?’ The holocaust survivor, sitting on the stage, uncrossed his legs, with a whimsical look, answered, “I imagined stories, made up stories, and entertained myself with these stories.” Then he was quiet, and just looked straight at us, waiting for the next question.
This wasn’t the first time Khalid and I had talked to a holocaust survivor, but this was the first time that he wasn’t there in flesh and blood. We were having a conversation with a hologram.
We were at the Illinois Holocaust Memorial and Education Center in Skokie, Illinois. At a book reading the prior night, my interviewer, Kitty Loewy had mentioned that a few miles from there was the town of Skokie, which houses the second largest holocaust museum in America. At one time Skokie had the largest population of holocaust survivors in the U.S. Six of them are still living. The museum had added a brand new feature just a week ago—holograms of three of the survivors. Created with the image of the survivor, the hologram is programmed with the data on their life, and upon prompting, can answer any question, as long as the answer has been programmed into its database. We were told that at least few thousand questions and answers had been fed into the computer program.
We had recently seen the movie ‘Marjorie Prime’ and were familiar with the concept, and had wondered how long it would be before we would actually witness one in action.
“I want to go,” I told our host as we gathered for the book reading.
Within minutes, they assembled a party. Kitty would drive us, Pattie would meet us there, and as luck would have it, Jane, one of the attendees, a docent at the museum, agreed to give us a tour.
Once we had walked through the exhibit, Jane gave us an introduction on the life of Aaron Elster, the holocaust survivor whose hologram we were to interact with. Aaron was a 9-year old boy when he took refuge in the attic of the home of his protectors. To prevent discovery, he remained confined to the attic for two years. From a tiny crack in the wall, he could see children playing outside, and that was his only glimpse into the outside world. For two years he did not take a shower, brush his teeth, or get a haircut. Once a day a cup of soup and some bread was delivered to him. He was not allowed to talk to anyone in the house downstairs. He could only walk around and play when it was pounding rain. After the war, he eventually made his way to America and settled in Skokie. He is the co-chair of the Speakers Bureau and V.P of the Illinois Holocaust Memorial and Education Center. His story has been recorded in his voice, which is programmed into his hologram.
We took our seats in a small theater. The stage was empty. The moderator gave us our instructions. Once the hologram was turned on, we could ask a question; she would repeat the question by inserting ‘Key Words’ in it that the hologram would recognize. It would then answer the question.
She turned on the hologram and like magic, it appeared on the stage. It was a lighted figure of a man in his eighties, grey hair, white full-sleeve shirt, grey pants, and laced shoes. He sat on the chair with his hands clasped in his lap. There he was, looking just like his photo. Then he started speaking, and told the story of his hiding, his will to survive, and his escape.
“You can ask a question,” the moderator, a young woman called out.
“What happened to your sister?” A woman asked.
The moderator repeated the question, “What happened to your sister Irena after the war?”
The hologram grew brighter, shifted in his seat, and began talking. His lips moved, his expression changed, he looked sadder. We were interviewing Aaron Elster, and having a one-on-one conversation with his hologram.
Khalid asked the next question, “Have you gone back to visit your hometown in Poland?”
The moderator repeated the question, “Have you gone back to visit Sokolow Podlaski in Poland?”
“I have,” he answered, and proceeded to fill us in.
Another person in the audience asked a question. When the hologram responded, it was clear that it was the wrong answer.
“Let’s try asking this question a different way,” the moderator explained, and then proceeded to rephrase the question.
Wrong answer, again.
Apparently, he had not been programmed to answer that question.
In a few months time, the administrators will gather the unanswered questions, Aaron will record the answers, and the hologram will be re-programmed.
“Have you been able to forgive?” Khalid asked.
His expression changed, he looked thoughtful, and he sighed.
“I pray for their souls, but I will never forgive.”