Mapping the History of the Holocaust | An Interview with Anne Kelly Knowles

While waiting in a doctor’s office, I thumbed the pages of the December issue of Smithsonian Magazine and came across the article, “Mapping the Past.” While it discussed looking at the Civil War geography through the eyes of Robert E. Lee, the article also discussed Professor Knowles’ work on mapping the history of the Holocaust with GIS technology. I wanted to know more! I asked the doctor if I could borrow the issue (I have since subscribed to the e-version of the magazine for my Kindle Fire) and dashed off a request for interview to Professor Knowles, who teaches geography at Middlebury College in Vermont, and is the winner of Smithsonian American Ingenuity Awards. Here are the results.


Anne Knowles

The Whole Megillah (TWM): How did you get interested in mapping the Holocaust and how did the collaboration with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum come about?
Anne Knowles (AK): Back in spring 2007, I got a phone call from a man at USHMM named Michael Haley Goldman. “We’ve heard of this thing called GIS,” he said, “and we think it might help us deal with all the data we are accumulating about the Holocaust. Your name has come as someone who might be able to help us think about GIS.” This led to my helping to organize an interdisciplinary workshop that brought together four geographers and five Holocaust historians at USHMM in August 2007. Our goal for the two weeks was to determine whether geographic methods, including GIS, might open new paths for research on the Holocaust. We learned so much from each other, and hit it off so well, that we decided to apply for funding to pursue our ideas in case studies that would test methods at various scales, ranging from the continental scale of the SS concentration camp system to the very personal scale of individual prisoners being evacuated from Auschwitz in January 1945. The NSF came through with funding, which will be summarized in the book we hope to see published by December 2013. It’s titled Geographies of the Holocaust. The Museum has been our research partner throughout the project, hosting many of our group meetings, allowing us to present our findings to their very knowledegable staff, and providing support for our research in many ways.

TWM: Can you say more about the team of scholars you’re working with?
AK: They are terrific! Our group covers a wide range of expertise. I specialize in historical geography of labor and industry and have advocated using GIS in historical research for over 15 years. Alberto Giordano is a GIScientist at Texas State University; he is our real GIS expert, and as an Italian has a special interest in the case of Jews in Italy. Tim Cole, trained as an historical geographer, teaches history at Bristol University in the UK and is the world’s expert on the Budapest ghetto. Art historian Paul Jaskot, at DePaul University, specializes in an unusual mix of German art history and the architecture of the Holocaust. (He and I have collaborated on studies of the built environment of Auschwitz and the spatial-temporal development of the SS camps.) Among our other Holocaust historians, Simone Gigliotti is a feminist scholar who writes eloquently about the emotional trauma of individuals; Anna Holian focuses on the experiences of deportees; Waitman Beorn, a former Army officer who served in Iraq, researches the complicity of Wehrmacht soldiers in atrocities in Eastern Europe; and Marc Masurovsky is a specialist on stolen art, particularly from French Jews, during the Holocaust. Our chief cartographer and designer, Erik Steiner, designed the digital Atlas of Oregon before joining our team. He is now the creative director of the Stanford Spatial History Lab, among other projects. All of us have found our collaboration very stimulating. We think better as a group than we do alone. Our new name is the Holocaust Geographies Collaborative.

TWM: How does your work relate to, say, Martin Gilbert’s Atlas of the Holocaust and the USHMM’s Historical Atlas of the Holocaust?

AK: While we admire how well those conventional atlases document the location of key events of the Holocaust, we find their approach to visualizing the geography and the history of the Holocaust limited. One of the great advantages of GIS is that it enables you to explore many facets of whatever information you have been able to include in a given spatio-temporal database. By building our own databases, as well as augmenting a database of camps provided by USHMM, we have been able to explore change over time, to visualize the dynamics of change, and to probe the relationships between historical phenomena. This has led to mapping some subjects in new ways, and — what is most exciting for us — to discovering new questions that we hope to answer in further research. We have also experimented with dynamic mapping (both animation and interactive maps) as well as forms of visual representation that are closer to art than to the kind of mapping in previous Holocaust atlases. Our book will include a wide range of examples of our visualizations. We also hope to find ways of preserving and presenting our dynamic maps, perhaps through e-publication.

TWM: What is the scope in terms of time and geography?
AK: At this point we are researching topics from 1933 to 1945 across Europe. Our case studies are the SS concentration camps, arrest and transportation of Jews from Italy, atrocities in Belarus and Lithuania carried out by the Wehrmacht and Einsatzgruppen, the Budapest ghetto, the built environment of Auschwitz, and evacuations from Auschwitz.

TWM: What findings were most startling to you? Were there any obstacles? How did you overcome them?
AK: Most startling: the dominant impression of chaos and of the Nazis seeming to improvise and respond on the ground to immediate circumstances as much as their being guided by policy from above. This is not a definite finding yet, but an idea that has emerged repeatedly. Testing just how much this was the case will be a guiding question in the next phase of our research. We started the project just hoping to determine whether geographic methods could be useful in studying the Holocaust. We very quickly decided the answer to that question was a resounding YES. It will take years, however, to reach the point of strong findings based on use of those methods.

Obstacles? I think all of us felt daunted for the first few years by how much we didn’t know. The geographers were intimidated by the vast literature on the Holocaust, which was almost entirely new to us. The historians were intimidated by GIS and the way geographers tend to think laterally, more about relationships than about specific events or conditions. But we decided early on to be honest about what we didn’t know, and to work in teams to support and teach each other as we went. True collaboration has made the research consistently challenging and possible.

TWM: What have the challenges been to turn the results of your work into compelling prose?
AK: Well, it remains to be seen whether others think our work HAS been turned into compelling prose! We are trying to write the case study chapters for Geographies of the Holocaust so that they will make sense to readers from all disciplinary backgrounds, and we are designing the maps and other graphics with the same goal in mind. Everything we have written has gone through multiple drafts among the co-authors. For the book chapters, there is the additional stage of internal review by the three book editors (Knowles, Giordano, and Cole), as well as comments by outside readers.

TWM: What do you hope results from this work?
AK: A couple things. First, we hope to inspire many other scholars to think about the Holocaust as a profoundly geographical event. There are so many geographical questions to ask about this huge event — not to mention the even larger context of World War II. Geographers themselves have rarely taken on the major events of human history. A second hope is that our work will encourage geographers to be bolder, and to work across disciplinary lines, to apply their powerful, fascinating, integrative perspective to issues and stories that have abiding interest for the world at large. Third, we hope our intensely visual, carefully documented modes of digital representation will help set a high standard for digital scholarship and visual/spatial history.

TWM: What is a typical day like for you?
AK: I don’t really have a typical day. I tend to improvise my way through life. But during the teaching term, I do usually get up about 7:00, get my daughter to school (she’s a high school junior), teach classes in the morning, eat lunch at my desk while answering emails, then do more social things in the afternoon (meetings, etc.). I cook supper every night, then work at home in the evening. Weekends and non-teaching days are the time for thinking, writing, reviewing other people’s work, editing. I try to exercise a couple times a week. I swim to clear my mind. My favorite exercise is dancing — currently, I dance with a local Bollywood group called the Hadippa Dancers. We have tremendous fun.

TWM: What background should one have to engage in historical mapping?
AK: Curiosity is the first requirement. Being trained in basic cartography is helpful because it gives one confidence with skills that make it possible to translate one’s ideas onto the page. Studying geography helps one learn how to ask questions that can be answered with maps. Then learning history — an endless process!

For more information

About Barbara Krasner

History writer and award-winning author Barbara Krasner writes Jewish-themed poetry, articles, nonfiction books, and novels for children and adults.
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2 Responses to Mapping the History of the Holocaust | An Interview with Anne Kelly Knowles

  1. Rosi says:

    Absolutely fascinating. Thanks for a wonderful interview.

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