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Scholars Share Digital Visualization Possibilities and Challenges at Digital Approaches to Genocide Studies Conference

Gone are the days when students and scholars studied history – and shared their findings – solely through books, written documents, and maybe a few archival photos. Now, digital tools allow researchers from a variety of disciplines, including cartography, history and visual arts, to represent the Holocaust in new, exciting visual formats.

“Digital Visualization of Holocaust Spaces: A Broader Perspective” was the topic of the first panel on the second day of USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research’s “Digital Approaches to Genocide Studies” conference, Oct. 23 and 24 at USC.

Erik Steiner (Stanford University) and Anne Kelly Knowles (University of Maine), spoke first. The two are part of the multidisciplinary research group Holocaust Geographies Collaborative, which uses GIS and other data visualization tools to create maps and graphics illustrating spaces, places and movement during the Holocaust.

Knowles gave an overview of how she and her colleagues analyze data and survivor narratives (including testimonies from the Visual History Archive) to construct maps and other visualizations. For example, they might create a literal map of the locations all the concentration camps and ghettos in Eastern Europe, or a more abstract “map” showing how a survivor perceived time throughout the Holocaust.

She and Steiner acknowledged that there are concerns to consider when making maps about the Holocaust. Maps require the reader or researcher to do more work in order to relate what is shown on the map to the larger picture of the Holocaust. Maps are abstractions and can be seen as cold or dehumanizing. Maps must, Steiner said, “not only engender a search for the truth but also allow us to see the phenomenon as subjective and contingent.”

In other words, the visualization must take into account the personal and the authentic in addition to data and numbers in order to be really additive to the field. Knowles also argued that visualizations should not simply be tacked on to the end of a research project as an afterthought but rather become part of the process.

“Let’s work visually, not from the end but from the beginning, to understand our material,” Knowles said.

Caroline Sturdy Colls, from Staffordshire University, spoke next about her work at the Centre of Archaeology at her university. Colls and her team use archaeological methods, as well as what she calls “non-invasive techniques” to visually reconstruct the lost remains of Holocaust concentration camps. So in addition to physically excavating artifacts, they also use satellite imaging, aerial imaging, forensic analysis, archival research, laser scanning, drone surveys and more to create 3D maps of how concentration camps looked during their operation, even if no structures remain today.

She noted that in some cases, survivor testimonies have led her and her team right to the remains of gas chambers and other buildings, even if other documentation said otherwise.

“The testimonies perfectly described the tiles we were finding,” she said.

Colls works with local rabbinical authorities to be sure remains, especially grave sites, are excavated respectfully according to Jewish tradition.

Finally, Anika Walke, from Washington University in St. Louis, talked about her research in Belarus and how visualization adds to her attempts to reconstruct the forgotten Jewish and Holocaust history of small towns like Beshenkovichi.

In Beshenkovichi, Walke said, places where the formerly thriving Jewish population lived and worked have been destroyed or repurposed ever since most of the Jewish population was murdered during the Holocaust. On a recent trip to the town, she took photographs of the places in the forest where Jews were shot – there are no memorials or any indication that thousands of people were murdered there.

“Ghettoization, mass killing in the forests and the removal of bodies facilitated the marginalization of their memory,” Walke said. “It completes the genocidal project.”

However, she envisions that a visualization of the town and its history might help to break the town’s silence about its own past. She argued that such a visualization would need to include more than just geographical markers of where certain events took place; it would also need to include survivor testimonies, photos, social media posts, archival information and other sources in order to truly represent the place, its history and its identity today.

Watch an interview with the four panelists above.