GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Leo Schoffer said he grew up in a house where his parents, both Holocaust survivors, and their friends would regularly discuss the conditions they lived through during World War II.

“From that, we were educated. We were enlightened,” Schoffer, chairman of Stockton University’s Board of Trustees, told about a dozen Pleasantville High School students Thursday.

Sharing that knowledge and human empathy is the hope of a project from the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation called Dimensions in Testimony, which through a partnership with Stockton and the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, is being piloted at the college’s Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center.

“We’re the first in the nation, first in the world, to have this in a classroom setting,” said Gail Rosenthal, director of the Schoffer Center.

On Thursday, the students from Pleasantville who are participating in the high school’s dual-credit Holocaust and Genocide Studies program were the first to try out the program in which students can verbally ask a question to a pre-recorded video of Parsippany resident and Holocaust survivor Edward Mosberg. Using a week’s worth of video testimony from Mosberg, a computer program finds the clip with the best answer and allows Mosberg’s likeness to respond.

Kori Street, senior director of programs and operations for the USC Shoah Foundation, said the project has been used at museums on a much larger scale for the past eight years. She said bringing it into the classroom required a lot of work, which will continue through the next three years as Stockton, and eventually others in New Jersey, pilot the experience.

“This is a pilot test because when we launch it into education settings we want it to work,” Street said.

There are two different systems. One is a portable screen, and the other is a digital format that can be plugged in and played through a projector. Street said the program uses natural language processing similar to Siri on Apple products or Amazon’s Alexa.

“It gets stronger the more we use it,” she said.

In addition, the programmers can learn and update the program to give more accurate responses based on feedback from the users.

Pleasantville students took turns asking Mosberg questions about his time in concentration camps during World War II, about his wife, and anti-Semitism.

“I think it was amazing,” said 17-year-old Cristianna Rojas. “It changes a lot because you can actually hear from the person who experienced it.”

She said she could see and feel Mosberg’s emotions in his responses, creating empathy.

Shania Watkins, 17, said she has learned about the Holocaust since middle school but never really understood it as in-depth as the Holocaust and Genocide dual-credit program allows. She said Dimensions in Testimony creates an even deeper understanding.

“Watching his testimony and asking questions, it made me feel more connected to how he felt,” said Rimsha Nawaz, 17.

Rosenthal said the program has three parts, the first of which is the students learning about Mosberg in the classroom. The second part is the students researching and developing questions to ask Mosberg when they visit the Holocaust Center, and the third part is to debrief after their interaction on what they learned.

Stephen Draisin, a member of the state Commission on Holocaust Education, said that often “history books are a cold recitation of facts.” He said hearing the stories from those who lived them connects that knowledge to moral choices.

“There’s no better substitute of hearing the stories of real people from the people themselves,” he said.

Draisin said the project will become a critical tool for classrooms teaching the Holocaust.

Schoffer said that as time goes on, the program will help preserve the stories of Holocaust survivors and provide an interactive experience for students, even after the survivors are no longer alive.

Stockton President Harvey Kesselman said the stories told through Dimensions in Testimony are “fascinating, sobering and powerful.” He charged the students with carrying on those stories.

“You’re the generation who has to ensure that this is passed on,” Kesselman said. “We are counting on you to do so.”

Contact: 609-272-7251

Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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