"New Dimensions In Testimony" Review - The Memories and world-view of Pincas Gutter

The Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, 9603 Woods Drive, Skokie, is currently the sole venue in the world actively involved in displaying an amazing piece of technology, the Beta-driven prototype developed by the University of Southern California (USC) Shoah Foundation- The Institute for Visual History and Education and the USC Institute for Creative Technology along with Conscience Display. Shoah is Hebrew for Holocaust. The foundation was begun in 1973, by producer-director, Steven Spielberg, and its initial goal was to record and preserve 50,000 Holocaust Survivors testimony over four-years. ”New Dimensions in Testimony”, the new technology, is indeed miraculous; it allows for a perpetual unique interaction with the subject. Currently, a 2 dimensional larger than life size image is projected onto a screen, and, through a facilitator or docent, audience members can question the subject, who answers through “natural language” tech software. More than 30 hours of recorded answers exist, and this initial venture, planned to be followed by 10 to 12 more, possibly as holograms, cost one million dollars to produce. The technology is actually learning how to answer as the work proceeds!


A Young man Questions Pincas Gutter

Pinchas Gutter, the man interviewed, is an 82 year-old survivor of multiple concentration camps. The effort to memorialize testimony could not have come up with a better subject. This kindly philosopher is a clean-shaven Chasid who speaks 8 languages, is self-educated and self-made, and has lived and worked all over the world. He's been married for almost 40 years, and raised 3 children, is devout, and quietly fervent, and is unafraid to shed tears. He turns indignant at the idea that the Jews did not resist the Nazis and becomes visibly saddened  when recalling his lost relatives. He is clearly not anybody’s victim and he tells a tale of overwhelming magnitude. He was 11 when the Germans removed him from Warsaw and was ultimately incarcerated in 5 different concentration camps. He also took part in a 2 weeks long death march walking from Colditz  to Terezienstadt in Czechoslovakia; he was 13 on May 8, 1945, when the Russians liberated that infamous corner of hell, after which he remained for 3 months until sent to an orphanage in England. But it is his humanitarian vision rather than his version of his life's events that has been most eloquently and elegantly captured, hopefully forever. His upbringing and early training rendered this man incorruptible, despite his grave losses and the torture of the Nazis.


Here, is my paraphrased version of some of the memories and thoughts of Pinchas Gutter, may his name be emblazoned in the Book of Life. He was born in Lodz, Poland, to a Chasidic family that had been winemakers there for 400 years. When the Nazis were through with them, of 150 extended family members, 4 remained alive. Pinchas and his twin sister, Sabina were 8 years old in 1940, at the start of World War 2, when the Nazis came to Lodz and beat his father nearly to death; they fled to Warsaw, and were present at the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto and the famous uprising. They hid in an underground bunker, but were discovered and sent to Majdanek. On the very first day, his mother and sister were murdered in the gas chambers; his father also was slain. Weeping, he explained that his worst pain is that he cannot remember his twin's face; his only visual memory of her is of her hair from behind, her long braid. Upon entering the camp, his father whispered to him to say he was 18 years old -he was 11 - this saved him. Throughout his life, in his worst moments, the image of his father’s head, covered by a prayer shawl, has appeared to him as his guardian angel.



Pincas Gutter Addressing a Group

He describes his experiences from 1940 to 1945 as “infernal sufferings”, and he ultimately refused the reparations offered him by Germany. When the Russians liberated Theresienstadt, he states he felt “nothing”, but then goes on to describe how on that day, May 8, 1945, he arose to find the guards and SS were gone. When he ran outside, he observed the German citizenry, old men, women and children. They were poor, hungry, and downtrodden, and were being expelled by the Czech people and abused by the Russians. His heart was filled with pity at the sight.


Pinchas became visibly incensed when asked why the Jews “did not resist”. He said the Polish and religious Jews were resisting all the time, with every fiber of their being. They studied, they ate, they prayed. Every action that they took to survive was an act of defiance, and, of course, there was the Resistance and freedom fighters. When asked how he feels about the Germans, he explains that his feelings have evolved. At first, and for “many, many years”, he was afraid of them and repulsed by this nation when he thought of the people they murdered, terrorized and tortured; he believed they were all ugly. However, in his adulthood, when he began applying his brain, he felt very upset that most of the perpetrators weren’t punished, but he feels one can’t blame all Germans that were alive then, nor blame German children born since then.


Why did he decide to participate in this project? He hopes that when future people are faced with the sufferings of a human being, they will respond in a benign and warm way, to try to help; maybe over the ages, we will achieve the betterment of the world. Watch what happens to a stone. It becomes smooth as marble, warms to the touch, provides comfort after it has been softened by years of water pouring over it…


And his religious beliefs, his “Hasidus”? They are and always have been a part of him. He had his Bar Mitzvah in a concentration camp. He has always believed in God, and does not question the how, why and where of Gods ways. He has been a Cantor for more than a dozen years. He was asked if he would bless us, and he prayed over us; I knew more than just people were in that auditorium.


Pincas Gutter's 2 dimensional Image and The facilitator

Each and everybody should visit this wonderful museum, make a contribution, and hear the recorded stories of many holocaust survivors, and learn about the ongoing work preserving second and third generation survivors descendants stories.


Summary: the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education center has been the test-site for “New Dimensions in Testimony”, a remarkable technology to preserve the testimony of Holocaust Survivors. Developed by the USC Shoah foundation, USC Institute for Creative Technology and Conscious Display, the technology produces a life size “Skype- like” image of a still living survivor. Questioners can actually interact with pre-recorded testimony in a very compelling way. The first interviewee, Pinchas Gutter, 82, of Canada tells an unbearably moving tale of his descent into the maelstrom and ultimate transcendence.

The exhibit testing has been so well received that the IHMEC will continue to hold public drop-in sessions with Pinchas through September, 2015. The public sessions will be every Saturday from 10 to 2 and Thursday's August 6 and 27 from 5:30 to 7:30 at 9603 Woods Drive, Skokie.


More information about the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Educational Center



Photos: Courtesy of Illinois Holocaust Museum and Educational Center

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