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Artificial Intelligence helped connect a Holocaust survivor with photos of her past

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Blanche Fixler picked up a call from an unknown number a few months ago. A man named Daniel Patt was on the other end.

BLANCHE FIXLER: He asked me if I have any pictures from the war.

SUMMERS: Fixler is a Holocaust survivor. She was a child during the war, and she told Patt that she didn't have any photos of her life back then.

FIXLER: He says, well, I do some artificial intelligence. I search for pictures during the war. And I have a few pictures that may be of interest to you, and I'd like to show them to you.

SUMMERS: Blanche Fixler and Daniel Patt met sometime after that, and he handed her two photos.

FIXLER: I was very happy to see those pictures. I recognized myself. And my aunt was there and my cousin and a few other people that I recognized.

SUMMERS: That aunt that Fixler saw in that photo played a big role in helping her survive. So these photos, now prominently displayed in her home, they hold a lot of meaning.

We wanted to talk to Daniel Patt about how he found those photos and the artificial intelligence he uses for it. He joins us now. Daniel, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DANIEL PATT: Thanks so much for having me.

SUMMERS: So, Daniel, you created this website called From Numbers to Names. Tell us about it. How does it work?

PATT: Sure. So let's say, for example, you have a picture of your family member, a parent or grandparent, and you want to see if there's other pictures of them, you know, in these Holocaust digital archives. And so you take the picture, you upload it on the website. It looks through about half a million photos, millions of faces in a couple seconds to kind of find the top 10 photos that are most likely to have other images of your own family members in them.

SUMMERS: Wow. So help us understand, how then did you end up getting on the phone and calling Blanche Fixler? I understand that this isn't something you regularly do, pick up the phone to call people like this.

PATT: Absolutely. You know, so I came across Blanche's story on Twitter, and I read about her and just thought she had this incredible life story. And so I used the photo that I found on Twitter to search for her. And I found a couple other matches, potential matches. And, you know, I just said, let me see if I can give her a call and talk to her about these photos. So I looked her up and reached out, and she was extremely warm and receptive and, you know, really open to this conversation from a person she had never heard from before. And that's how it all began.

SUMMERS: And when we spoke with Blanche Fixler, she told us that you now talk often on the phone and that sometimes those are long and personal conversations. What's your relationship like with her now?

PATT: Yeah, it's pretty remarkable, I would say. Like, I feel very close to Blanche and her family. I mean, we met in person. She's an amazing person. I actually - after the photo search was done, I read about her life after the war. She became - you know, so she came to the United States as a child and then raised five children and then went to college and then became a teacher. And, you know, all of my grandparents are from Poland. Three of them are Holocaust survivors. And I feel like I'm speaking with someone who's, you know, very familiar to me, someone that could have been in my own family.

SUMMERS: So what's next for From Numbers to Names? What do you hope the future holds in this effort?

PATT: So I think the next big focus for us is really education. And there's a high school in Queens, N.Y., that's actually - they're about to actually start going through potential matches that we've surfaced beforehand to kind of help verify them and then publish them. And then also, there's a university in New Jersey that is helping out as well. And I think the first match that I found actually was - you know, I found this person. Nobody was looking for him. His name is Nesam Kassorla (ph), and no one was looking for him because there's no - he has no descendants to look for him. And, you know, there's that expression, basically people die twice - you know, once when they're - they actually physically die, and then they also die when no one remembers them anymore. And so I think for us, you know, having students find these matches and help with this process, basically doing some of this verification work, it really could go a long way in providing this, like, you know, unforgettable educational experience. And also, you know, on the other side of it, they're really contributing directly to the historical record, which is so important.

SUMMERS: That is Daniel Patt, creator of the site From Numbers to Names. Daniel, thank you so much for joining us.

PATT: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.