LOS ANGELES – “Pinchas, how old are you?” Steven Spielberg asked the wall screen, a life-size video image of an elderly man, who blinked and answered without missing a beat.
“I was born in 1932, so you can make your own arithmetic,” responded Pinchas, in a Polish accent.
Spielberg laughed, then added: “How did you survive when so many did not?”
“How did I survive?” the screen responded. “I survived, I believe, because provenance watched over me.”
The chat went on for five minutes, and while the artificial intelligence looked eerily reminiscent of Spielberg’s earlier films, the goal wasn’t entertainment — it was education. On the sound-sensitive screen was an interactive biography of Pinchas Gutter, a Polish Holocaust survivor and part of a tour the director was leading through the redesigned headquarters for the USC Shoah Foundation, the organization he founded in 1994 to collect testimony from Holocaust survivors.
Now Spielberg has expanded the foundation’s footprint on the University of Southern California campus, along with its mission and public focus: to fight hate, which he says has become commonplace globally.
“The presence of hate has become taken for granted,” Spielberg said. “We are not doing enough to counter it.”
The video conversation is part of a series using playback technology that invites visitors to converse with 16 survivors of genocide, based on specific word patterns and more than 2,000 questions that vary from views on God to personal history.
While the foundation continues to archive stories from victims of anti-Semitism, and advocate on their behalf, it is also collecting what Spielberg calls “living testimony” from modern genocide victims.
“The Holocaust cannot stand alone,” he said. “We decided to send our videographers into Rwanda to get testimony. From there we went to Cambodia, Armenia — we’re doing a critical study in the Central African Republic, Guatemala, the Nanjing massacre. Most recently, we’re doing testimony on the anti-Rohingya violence in Myanmar and the current anti-Semitic violence in Europe. We’re expanding our scope to counter many forms of hate.”
Following the release of “Schindler’s List” in 1993. Spielberg sent videographers around the globe to record Holocaust survivors’ stories. There are now a little over 51,000 recordings of Holocaust survivors in the visual history archive, a staggering 115,000 hours of footage.
The organization has produced multiple films, including the recent documentary “The Girl and the Picture,” about Xia Shuqin, 88, who witnessed the murder of her family in the Nanjing Massacre in 1937. It was directed by Vanessa Roth, whose mother was an interviewer for the foundation in the early 1990s.
Rising anti-Semitism is providing fresh impetus for the foundation’s relaunched efforts. “Not only are people willing to forget about the Holocaust, they’re willing to deny it,” said Aaron Breitbart, a senior researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the human rights organization that has worked with the foundation since the 1990s. “The Shoah Foundation has made a great contribution in that battle for memory.”
Spielberg said the work is as important now as it ever has been.
“The racial divide is bigger than I would ever imagine it could be in this modern era,” he said. “People are voicing hate more now because there’s so many more outlets that give voice to reasonable and unreasonable opinions and demands. People in the highest places are allowing others who would never express their hatred to publicly express it. And that’s been a big change.”