Class Connects with Holocaust Survivor

When World War II broke out, Pinchas Gutter was seven years old. His family fled to Warsaw and were incarcerated in the Warsaw Ghetto for three and a half years until April 1943. Their bunker was discovered and they were deported to the death camp, Majdanke. When they arrived at the camp, Mr. Gutter was separated from his family. It was the last he saw of his father, mother, and twin sister who were killed by the Nazis. 

Mr. Gutter was sent to a work camp and passed through several other concentration camps, including Buchenwald. Toward the end of the war, he was forced on a death march from Germany to Therenstadt in Czechoslovakia. He barely survived. On May 8, 1945 the Russians liberated him. He and other children orphaned by the war were brought to Britain, under the auspices of the United Nations Relief and Administration.

Seventy-five years later, Mr. Gutter shared his life experiences with a group of students at St. Mary’s Dominican High School. Grouped in front of a television screen in The Ermina Wadsworth| Azby Fund Technology Center, students in the Advanced Placement Spanish Class engage in a “virtual conversation” with a holographic Mr. Gutter. They are connected via Skype to the Holocaust Museum of Houston where the museum’s Education Outreach Coordinator Laurie Garcia communicates with Spanish teacher Mrs. Claudia Vallejo and her students.  The following day, the students interviewed Ms. Garcia in Spanish.

Last October, the museum opened New Dimensions in Technology, which will be shown through March 2018. The project was made in collaboration between the University of Southern California’s Institute of Technology and Shoah Foundation – dedicated to making audio-visual interviews with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides a compelling voice for education and action. Advanced filming techniques, specialized display technology and next-generation national language processing create an experience where students ask Mr. Gutter questions and he replies. Mr. Gutter is one of the pioneers of this innovative project and the first person to test-drive the new technology. To date, 15 survivors’ testimonies have been captured by more than 50 cameras as each survivor is asked 1,600 questions addressing topics ranging from pre-war life through the Holocaust and beyond.

Junior Dina Alawamleh said the interaction with Mr. Gutter’s hologram impressed on her, “that we should value human life and not take it for granted. We should all be thankful for the life we have been given and make the most of it.”

Classmate Tai Sutherland, a sophomore, described the interviewing experience “an enriching lesson in how negative experiences do not always condemn people to lead sad lives. I learned that there is always hope in God and when in doubt, trust your faith.”

Although Junior Katherine Mazzanti had studied the Holocaust in class, Mr. Gutter’s story offered a completely new perspective. “It was amazing how he was able to revisit the worst times in his life to inform others. I loved how we was able to rebuild his life after the war and meet his wife.”

The museum’s Director of Visitor and Volunteer Services, and the Curatorial Assistant who stopped by during the class session were impressed by the students’ questions and their thoughtful comments; they requested a copy of the questions. Ms. Garcia commended Mrs. Vallejo for exposing students to such important issues. “Prejudice, discrimination, hate speech, and violence against a targeted group does not just happen during the Holocaust – as you are well aware, we have seen these issues play out throughout history and are still issues we face throughout the world today. The connections one can make between the past and present are incredibly alarming and disheartening. What is hopeful is that there are educators like you that are providing students with the opportunity to reflect on this history and consider ways they can be Upstanders.”

Mr. Gutter had dedicated his life to enlightening and educating others. His memoir, Memories in Focus, was published in 2017. He tells his story, “for the purpose of improving humanity, drop by drop, by drop. Like a drop of water falls on a stone and erodes it, so hopefully, by telling my story over and over again, I will achieve the purpose of making the world a better place.”