Panel discusses social networks at Auschwitz, GPS testimonies in Cambodia, mapping of plundered Jewish homes in Paris

Thu, 10/26/2017 - 4:57pm

Due largely to the one-on-one format of modern survivor testimony, we tend to think of Holocaust survivors as having lived in concentration camps alone together.

That is, the widely accepted method of survivor testimony – in which one interviewer talks with one interviewee – has had the unintended consequence of portraying inmates of concentration camps as a collection of individuals.

Or so says Paris Papamichos Chronakis of the University of Illinois, who believes insufficient attention has been devoted to studying how prisoners at Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau and other death camps during World War II formed social networks inside the confinements. These social networks, he argues, were complex and instrumental to their survival.

Chronakis discussed his work during a panel on Tuesday, Oct. 24 for the Digital Approaches to Genocide Studies conference hosted by USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research, in collaboration with the USC Digital Humanities Program.

Titled “Mapping Social Networks and Personal Experiences,” the three-person panel also included a talk by Andrew Curtis, director of the GIS Health and Hazards Lab at Kent State University, about attaching story points from testimonies of Cambodian genocide survivors to maps using videocameras with in-built GPS technology.

The third panelist, French historian Eric Le Bourhis (in photo), described a project to map thousands of apartments that, after being vacated by persecuted Jews during the Holocaust, were repopulated by non-Jews who’d lost their homes to bombings during World War II – a form of mass theft known as spoliation.

In his presentation, Chronakis presented his project, in which he and colleagues have produced an intricate map of social networks that existed in the camps.

"The concept of sociality ... allows a shift from the individual -- her survival and her subjectivity -- to identity construed and constructed through social interaction," he said.  

Chronakis and colleagues studied 40 testimonies of Jews from Salonica, Greece. They found, among other things, that this group had a disproportionate presence among the Sonderkommandos whose horrific job involved clearing bodies from the gas chambers. A large contingent of Salonica Jews were also interned at a concentration camp in Warsaw, Poland.

Location triggers memories

Curtis of Kent State believes that interviewing survivors at the location of where they were when the traumatic event occurred triggers memories they wouldn’t otherwise recall.

“When you’re in the space you get a very different narrative,” he said. “I do believe if you are in the space, you’re going to be stimulated by what you see, by what you smell, by what you hear.”

On April 17, 1975, the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime overtook the government and began implementing its vision. On that day, the communist Khmer Rouge insurgents warned the residents of Phnom Penh to evacuate the city for three days while they purged it of their enemies.

Curtis and a team of colleagues recently interviewed survivors of that historic event. The interviews were conducted in cars while driving along the evacuation routes that survivors took on that day in 1975. For each interview, the survivor rode in the passenger seat, recalling events along the route. The testimonies were captured using GPS cameras that enable researchers to overlay the transcribed narratives on a map.

“The map becomes the index,” Curtis said.  

For instance, users can click points along a dam to hear accounts of how residents survived trauma unique to the area. Because it was the location of heavy shelling, people living near there had trouble with flooding.

Curtis said he believed testimonies are enhanced when accompanied by images of the locations where the events unfolded. 

To illustrate his point he shared the story of one survivor.

The survivor took the researchers to where he lived, and talked of being picked up at his home by the Khmer Rouge, who put him in a truck and assured him they’d be taking him to safety. It was a lie. The Khmer Rouge instead drove a few miles to the infamous Security Prison 21 (S-21), then a converted high school, now a museum in Phnom Penh dedicated to memorializing the genocide, which killed up to 3 million people between 1975 and 1979.

Some 40 years later, while parked outside of the museum, the researchers asked the survivor if, while parked outside the building on that day in 1975, he knew what was happening behind those walls.

“And he says, ‘No ... I was just sitting confused in this truck,’” Curtis said. “Then a guard came in (to the truck), hit him, and actually dragged him inside."

Coupling the story with the visual aid of the location adds emotional impact to the testimony, both for the teller and the viewer, he said. 

 “There’s more power in that, to actually see the spaces,” Curtis said.

Mass theft of Jewish homes in Paris

Le Bourhis, a specialist in urban history at School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in France, said so many Jews were evicted, arrested, forced to flee, interned or worse from 1940 to 1944 that the city of Paris created a new bureau – called the “re-housing office” – to re-lease their vacated homes.

Often, the units vacated by Jews were in the urban core, while the non-Jewish families that later inhabited them came from the suburbs, which suffered the bulk of the bombing during World War II. (Interestingly, it was the Americans and the British – not the Germans – who bombed France, destroying nearly half a million homes and killing nearly 70,000 civilians.)

Using the archives of the housing department of the Prefecture of the Seine – an administrative office of Paris -- Le Bourhis and colleagues have investigated about 9,000 Parisian apartments formerly inhabited by Jewish tenants. His experience with spatial analysis and historical GIS serve as a driving methodological force for the team.

"This study is important, because not only Germans and Eastern Europeans benefitted from the Holocaust," he said. "Paris," he added,  "has totally forgotten this history."