Second gentleman and USC alum Douglas Emhoff returned to campus earlier this month to visit USC’s Shoah Foundation, where he sat down for a Zoom call with Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter.
It was the second time Emhoff had spoken with Gutter that day — sort of. Just before the call began, Emhoff had asked an artificial intelligence rendering of Gutter about his experience in German concentration camps.
Gutter’s interactive biography is part of the foundation’s project “Dimensions in Testimony,” which allows people to interact with survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides using pre-recorded interviews and chatbox technologies, similar to Siri or Alexa.
The project, which is on exhibit on the fourth floor of Leavey Library, aims to display survivors’ stories in a medium that preserves both the testimony and the benefits of learning these testimonies through conversation. Emhoff believes those benefits include curbing the “epidemic of hate” he said is plaguing the United States.
After the event, Emhoff spoke of how his conversation with Gutter reminded him of the recent instances of violence in the U.S., saying “the through-line is hatred.”
“It’s in part fueled by misinformation and disinformation out there online and other places,” Emhoff said.
“The Pinchas, who we met today, both virtually and in real life — we need people to see that. Because if you actually see it, if you experience it, it’s a lot harder to say something didn’t happen. It’s a lot harder to say, ‘Well, it wasn’t so bad,’ which is all misinformation… And that’s why, again, this program, through the USC Shoah Foundation is going to be a really important tool.”
Emhoff graduated from USC’s Gould School of Law in 1990 to pursue a career as an entertainment lawyer. Now, as both the first man and first Jew to be the spouse of a president or vice president, Emhoff has championed a campaign to combat hate in a series of events similar to his visit to the Foundation.
“I have this microphone and this platform as second gentleman, and every time I’m able, I just speak up and speak out and try to get people to unify on this concept that this is not okay and that we all need to come together and push back against this hatred,” he said.
His mission closely aligns with that of the Shoah Foundation, which strives “to develop empathy, understanding and respect through testimony” of genocide survivors and witnesses, according to the Foundation’s website. Most recently, the Foundation has been collecting testimonies in Ukraine to assist the International Criminal Court’s probe of alleged war crimes there, according to Kori Street, interim executive director of the Shoah Foundation.
Both Emhoff and the Shoah Foundation staff said their similar missions, as well as Emhoff’s religious and academic connections to the Foundation, made his visit particularly meaningful.
“Someone who fights hatred — I mean, he really understands what we’re trying to do — who has a family connection to the archive as well, it’s really important to have those kinds of people here,” Street said. “And someone with this kind of platform can also help us to extend our message, to help other people know how important it is to use these testimonies to teach people to be more tolerant.”
Upon his arrival, Street introduced the Foundation’s work to Emhoff with a video testimony of Helena Horowitz, a Holocaust survivor from the same Polish town that Emhoff’s family immigrated to the United States from.
After watching the video, the two joined the Foundation’s William P. Lauder Junior intern, Seline Hamelians, and chief technology officer Sam Gustman in the “Dimensions in Testimony” installation to meet Gutter. Emhoff first engaged with Gutter’s interactive biography, asking the artificial intelligence rendering how he survived six German concentration camps, why he tells his story and even to sing a song — a favorite question of Foundation staff, who said Gutter’s answer always varies.
Emhoff found the installation so engaging that when Emhoff later spoke with the real Gutter over Zoom, he greeted him by saying “I feel like I already know you!”
Rossier School of Education dean Pedro A. Noguera also sat down with Emhoff and Street for the live video conference with Gutter to discuss how to utilize Gutter and others’ stories to combat hate.
“I love your message of unity,” Emhoff told Gutter. “We all need to stand together and stand united against this epidemic of hate.”
The appreciation was mutual. Gutter also expressed his gratitude for Emhoff and the Biden administration’s work to fight antisemitism and hate.
“I really feel that you are able to make a difference, and you are making a difference,” he said.
Some of that work includes proclaiming May as Jewish American Heritage Month and enlisting ambassador Deborah Lipstadt as the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. Emhoff has said he will work closely with Lipstadt, however, Republican opposition to her confirmation has delayed the start of their work.
“It took a while for her to be confirmed. Unfortunately, it took over a year plus,” Emhoff said. “And so we’re going to just stay in touch… we’ll talk about these events that I’m doing here, talk about the takeaways and how we can best message and surrogate for the administration on this issue of antisemitism.”
Gutter said he believes sharing stories like his will be crucial to addressing antisemitism and hatred.
“Take this flame,” Gutter said as he shared his story. “Light up the world with these flames and make the world a better place.”