Remembrance Is the Secret to Redemption, and Other Lessons Learned at SXSW 2018

By Jackie Shapiro

Every year in mid-March, attendees from around the globe gather in Austin, Texas, for one of the world’s largest conferences — South by Southwest (SXSW). An event of epic proportions, SXSW celebrates and explores the worlds of film, interactive media, technology, education and music. It’s a week-long immersive experience, where people gather to take in new ideas, make connections both personal and professional, and inspire each other.

Every hour of the day during the week of March 12–18, the SXSW schedule was brimming with compelling sessions to attend. Every conference room in every major hotel in the downtown core was host to either a talk, a meet-up or a demonstration. I heard Melinda Gates talk about women in the workplace of the future. Speakers included Elon Musk, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. The roster of presenters was impressive.

One panel stood out due to its subject matter: The Last Survivors: Memories of the Holocaust, took place at midday on Tuesday, March 12, at the Austin Convention Centre. Unlike the majority of the other presentations, which were largely theoretical and abstract in nature, this presentation included the man who was in many ways the topic of the panel itself – Pinchas Gutter, Holocaust survivor, author and educator.

Prepping before the presentation, Jason Charters, Pinchas Gutter, Jody Spiegel and Stephen Smith meet.

During the hour-long presentation to a packed room, the speakers presented case studies of three experimental approaches to engaging with the memories of Holocaust survivors: The Azrieli Foundation’s interactive online platform and documentary experience, Re:Collection; USC Shoah Foundation’s New Dimensions in Testimony, an interactive, responsive technology that allows people to engage with the recorded testimonies conversationally; and The Last Goodbye, an immersive virtual reality film. Pinchas Gutter, a survivor of six Nazi concentration camps, is at the centre of all three projects, and he told his story to the audience in a number of selective and innovative ways.

At the centre of the SXSW panel The Last Survivors: Memories of the Holocaust and the source for much of the three experimental storytelling approaches was Pinchas Gutter’s traditionally published memoir, Memories in Focus.

Panelists included Jody Spiegel, director of the Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivors Memoirs Program, Stephen Smith, Executive-Director of the USC Shoah Foundation, Pinchas Gutter and Jason Charters, writer/producer at Riddle Films.

Left to right: Jason Charters, Jody Spiegel, Pinchas Gutter and Stephen Smith.
Riddle Films’ producer Liam Romalis setting up the livestream.
Pinchas Gutter speaks to the audience.

There was a special bit of wisdom that Pinchas shared with us toward the end of the presentation. Showing us his diary that he keeps with him at all times, he read a quote that he had written out by hand on the last page:

“Remembrance is the secret to redemption. Forgetting leads to exile.” – Baal Shem Tov

Pinchas and fellow panelists received a standing ovation, with comments from the audience:

“Simply brilliant on multiple layers, including the content and the comparative analysis of how the content is disseminated.”
“Wonderful session. Beautiful storytelling.”
“An innovative project for humanity. Thank you!
Audience member and grandson of a Holocaust survivor meets Pinchas and Dorothy Gutter after the presentation.
Dorothy and Pinchas Gutter.

After travelling the distance from Toronto to Austin, it felt good to see how The Last Survivors resonated with SXSW conference-goers and to see Pinchas’s story find a new audience.

And perhaps most gratifying of all was being in the room and bearing witness to the surprising and fitting way that the panel presentation took on its own life to become the very act of remembrance that Pinchas alluded to in quoting the Baal Shem Tov.

Watch the livestream presentation here: 

Born in Lodz, Poland, on July 21, 1932, Pinchas Gutter was the only member of his immediate family to survive the Holocaust. In 1945, he was liberated and taken to Britain. Pinchas lived in France, Israel, Brazil and South Africa before immigrating to Canada in 1985. He is the first Holocaust survivor to be immortalized in an interactive three-dimensional projection in the USC Shoah Foundation’s New Dimensions in Testimony. Pinchas Gutter lives in Toronto. Find Memories in Focus here.

The Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivors Memoirs Program publishes the memoirs of Canadian Holocaust survivors and creates materials for Holocaust education, including the online digital platform Re:Collection.

New Dimensions in Testimony (NDT) is a collection of interactive biographies from USC Shoah Foundation that enable people to have conversations with pre-recorded video images of Holocaust survivors and other witnesses to genocide.

The Last Goodbye is a VR short featuring Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter as he takes you on an intimate journey through the Majdanek concentration camp.

Jackie Shapiro works as the Creative Services Associate for the University of Toronto, Faculty of Arts & Science, and does freelance photography and graphic design.