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"Importance of geography is growing in Holocaust research"

EHRI workshop from May 27 to 29th, 2013.

At the end of May, 18 researchers from seven countries attended a three-day workshop on “Geography and Holocaust Research” hosted by the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen. They examined various places of persecution, the evolution of the ghettos and camps, as well as a substantial number of relevant maps. With the aid of maps, street directories and models, the scholars are able to give rise to old Jewish communities, represent ghettos and retrace the camps in full detail.

Ruth Levitt, from the Wiener Library in London, presented a map of the 1938 November pogrom in Germany, based on evidence and witness accounts from people involved. “We will soon put approximately 350 eye-witness accounts online,” announced the researcher. Anne Kelly Knowles, a professor from Middlebury College in the United States, showed a map of the camps with a chronological progression, which clearly displayed the stark increase in camps from 1942. “Many of the camps that began just before the end of the war remained in the construction stage,” according to Knowles. “The male prisoners were primarily used for the construction of military compounds, while the women worked in the weapon and munitions factories.”

Harrie Teunissen of the Centre for Jewish Studies in Leiden, the Netherlands, presented maps of the Nazis across the population distribution in the occupied countries. This served as preparation for the planned expansion of the "Germanic living space" and the expulsion and murder of Jews, as well as the Sinti and Roma. Using a city map of Warsaw, the historian demonstrated the ghettoisation of the Jews, the expulsion of the Poles from single parts of town, as well as the Germanisation of quarters by new inhabitants from the German empire. “The occupying troops confiscated on-site maps and evidence of population censuses,” reported Teunissen.

The researcher further surprised the attendees with an atlas and manual for the Jewish emigration of 1938. It was a guidebook with maps, charts and visa regulations of individual countries which should have simplified the planning of a departure. Only few months later this became impossible due to a ban preventing the Jews from crossing country borders.

Joanna Sliwa of Clark University in the USA demonstrated the expulsion and ghettoisation of the Jews from Krakow with the help of city maps. “The Jewish inhabitants were corralled together aside from the centre, far away from curious looks and under strict control. It was about an industrial zone in which they could be used as forced laborers, but also, with the help of the available railway line, be deported directly to the extermination camps.”

Pavel Ilyin of the USHMM in Washington illustrated the political significance of maps. “They reflect the different perceptions of the states.” On German maps, for instance, Alsace was a part of the German empire; on French it still belonged to France. Austria became the "East German mark" and the “Alps and Danube empire region.” “In the course of the Second World War, the producers of the maps no longer came afterwards in light of the many border movements,” said Ilyin. “For the Jewish population, borders frequently decided on life and death.”

Alexander Avram, leader of the workshop and director the Hall of Names in Yad Vashem, pointed with his talk to the huge number of the places, which are applicable to factor into databases and geographical representations.  “Birthplaces, places of residence, ghettos, camps, survivor camps, emigration locations: they all play a role.”  In addition, there are often different names and manners of writing or spelling for the same place.  There are also unofficial names, such as "Goldene Medine" from the Yiddish term for the USA and later also Canada.

“The importance of geography is growing in Holocaust research, even if we are still in the discovery stage,” Alexander Korb of the University of Leicester expressed. The participants of the Workshops were unified in believing that an overview of the geographical research and available maps and charts would be helpful. To this end they suggested a common project. They also argued for a mapping standard. These are also the exact aims of the EHRI brought to life by the European Union. EHRI stands for “the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure” and plans for the construction of an online portal and research environment planned for September 2014. It should offer a better overview and approach to the worldwide scattered document material on the subject to the Holocaust.