Microsoft, Meta and Google’s Waze provide tech for Holocaust remembrance projects

Ahead of Yom Hashoah, Microsoft rolls out AI platform for Zikaron Basalon events with survivors; Google’s Waze navigation app will map 1,200 meeting locations across Israel

Sharon Wrobel is a tech reporter for The Times of Israel.

The Waze navigation app will map more than 1,200 Zikaron Basalon gatherings and events across Israel dedicated to Holocaust remembrance. (Courtesy)
The Waze navigation app will map more than 1,200 Zikaron Basalon gatherings and events across Israel dedicated to Holocaust remembrance. (Courtesy)

As Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day next week, tech giants Microsoft, Meta and Google are making their technologies available to help preserve the memory and testimonies of survivors and educate future generations.

The annual day of commemoration, known in Israel as Yom Hashoah, honors the memory of six million Jews murdered by the Naza regime during World War II. It begins this year on the evening of Sunday, May 5, and ends on Monday evening.

As the survivors age, organizations in Israel and around the world are grappling with the dilemma of how to preserve their stories for future generations, while also caring for the needs of the survivors, who often die childless, alone, and in dire economic straits.

With Holocaust survivor numbers dwindling, the opportunity to hear in-person testimonies is becoming more of a rarity. This is what Microsoft employees felt when they returned from a Holocaust memorial trip organized by the tech giant to Poland last year, where they were not met with survivors in person to hear their stories.

The experience was the main driver for Microsoft Israel employees to embark on a project to develop technological solutions to preserve the memories of Holocaust survivors and ensure that their stories will live on after they are gone.

As part of one of Microsoft’s hackathon garage projects, a group of more than 15 employees teamed up with Zikaron Basalon (literally, “commemoration in the living room”; also known as the Bring Testimony Home initiative), a grassroots organization that gives a voice to Holocaust survivors. Together with Zikaron Basalon, the tech giant developed a smart video platform for the creation of personalized gatherings in living rooms across the world.

Microsoft Israel team builds AI-driven platform for Zikaron Basalon gatherings ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day.(Courtesy)

Founded in 2011, Zikaron Basalon is a resource to hold in-person or virtual gatherings and to bring people together in homes, workplaces and other more intimate environments to speak with Holocaust survivors.

The platform was rolled out this week on the Zikaron Basalon site ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day to help potential hosts generate customized content that is personalized for their gatherings.

“It was really important for us to find technological solutions that will help us commemorate and perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust,” Ady Mor-Biran, director of Microsoft The Garage – Middle East & Africa told The Times of Israel. “The idea was to leverage new technologies to be able to save and easily access memories and continue the tradition of doing living room gatherings when the survivors are no longer around.”

“We are always thinking of how to leverage AI for business but here we are leveraging AI for our people,” Mor-Biran added.

The AI-driven platform that Microsoft engineers, developers and designers developed on a volunteer basis runs on Microsoft’s Azure Cloud, and deploys its video analyzer. By typing in a few words, the AI-based search tool automatically selects personalized content based on materials in the databases, including 1000s of videos and images.

Users can select several criteria for their Zikaron Basalon event, including whether children will participate, they can choose to focus on a particular geographical area like a city in Poland or a particular topic, and specify how long they want the gathering to last. With a few clicks, the system will generate a presentation that includes poems, testimonials, images and videos. It also creates a guidance kit for the host which includes preparations that are needed for the gathering.

Ady Mor-Biran, director of Microsoft The Garage – Middle East & Africa..(Courtesy)

With recent advances in virtual reality and generative AI, Mor-Biran talked about plans for the next version of the platform to have a ChatGPT component where the user could use natural language models to customize and ask questions about the videos and interact with content in a whole new way.

To help make Zikaron Basalon gatherings more accessible for Israelis throughout the country, the social initiative will also use technology from Google’s navigation app Waze. As part of the collaboration, drivers will find location pins for over 1,200 gatherings across Israel on the Waze map. Users will be able to register for the events by clicking on the pins.

To encourage participation in Zikaron Basalon gatherings with Holocaust survivors, drivers using the mapping service app this week are receiving pop-up notifications to raise awareness.

“Every year about 2 million people in Israel and around the world take part in the initiative,” said co-founder of Zikaron Basalon Moran Ziffer. “This exciting partnership with Waze allows everyone to find the gathering closest to their home, see the salons on their commutes and choose to participate in something significant on this important day.”

For the fourth year in a row, Facebook-owner Meta in Israel said it partnered with a group of Holocaust survivors and Israeli celebrities, content creators and social influencers to launch the “Sharing Memories” project (Ma’alim Zikaron in Hebrew).

For the project, 20 Israeli celebrities and content creators will each run a series of Instagram Stories (Instagram is owned by Meta/Facebook) based on meetings and interviews with Holocaust survivors of which some survived the October 7 onslaught, to tell their tales to their respective social media followings.

On the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, the videos will be uploaded as Reels, a popular format on Instagram, giving users the ability to hear the survivors’ stories and memories in their own voices.

The digital project is meant to expose younger audiences to the real stories of Holocaust survivors, raise awareness about Holocaust remembrance, and shed more light about the poor living conditions of many survivors in Israel.

Meta/Facebook in Israel produced a series of Instagram Stories together with Holocaust survivors and Israeli celebrities and influencers ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah) in Israel, April 2022. (Screenshots)

The project is run in collaboration with Israeli aid organization Latet, which supports some survivors through its Aid for Life program, an initiative that provides medical, physical and emotional support specifically for Holocaust survivors.

The testimonials include Holocaust survivors who experienced the horrors of the October 7 massacre in Israel’s southern communities, and whose family members were murdered, abducted or killed in combat. Interviews were held with Holocaust survivors and Kibbutz Be’eri residents Ruth Haran, who had seven family members taken hostage to Gaza; Haim Raanan, who as a child survived the Budapest Ghetto; and Daniel Luz who will tell the story of how together with his partner Edna they survived the October 7 attack hiding in their safe room until they were rescued.

“Four years ago, we began meeting Holocaust survivors who open their hearts and share their darkest and most difficult moments – for us to never forget,” commented Meta Israel CEO Adi Soffer Teeni. “But this year was particularly painful – none of the Holocaust survivors we met even imagined that the horrific memories of the Holocaust would resurface, and this time in their own home.”

“Meanwhile, this past year has shown that hatred and antisemitism are not only part of our history and past, but also an integral part of our present as well as our future – this new reality makes it even more crucial than ever to preserve Holocaust memories and pass them on from generation to generation,” Soffer Teeni said.

Celebrities and content creators participating in the “Sharing Memories” project include Hollywood actor Michael Rapaport; Israel dancer and actress Anna Aronov; celebrity reporter Guy Pines; former soccer player and sports commentator Maor Buzaglo; Russian-born actress Ania Bukstein; and TV personality Ofira Assayag.

Since its launch, the project in which more than 60 content creators participated with an aggregate 20 million followers, has garnered more than 30 million views overall and raised NIS 2 million ($537,000) in donations for Holocaust survivors living in poverty, Meta Israel said.

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