Digital map helps historians get granular with holocaust research

Historians in the News
tags: Holocaust, UVa, Waitman Beorn



Looking at the list of names on Waitman Beorn’s computer screen is staggering. The eye blurs almost automatically as it searches through the 18,000 people – recorded by name, approximate birthdate and address – on the list compiled by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Yet, these 18,000 are only a small fraction of the nearly 160,000 Jews who were placed into forced labor or systematically murdered under the brutal Nazi rule in Lviv, Ukraine, a city that was once part of Poland.

“It’s hard to look at this as a list and see anything but magnitude, because it’s so much data,” Beorn said, “but there’s so much rich information here for us.”

For that reason, he turned to the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia Library for help in creating a clearer, more comprehensive way to share this data.

Beorn, a lecturer in UVA’s Corcoran Department of History and a consultant to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, has studied the Holocaust from a geographic perspective before and was looking for a way to create an interactive map of the Lviv ghetto and the nearby Janowska concentration camp.

The city and the camp are an important case study for historians. Janowska was unusual as a hybrid institution that served as a forced labor camp, a transit camp for deported Polish Jews and a killing center – at least 80,000 Jews were killed there. It was also unusual for a camp like Janowska to be so close to a city and local Jewish ghetto.

All of these factors make it an important area of study for understanding how the Holocaust was perpetrated at the local level and what life was like for individual Jews suffering under Nazi rule. Beorn believes that mapping helps with that understanding.

“There is an importance simply in naming these people, but it’s also good to have a visualization of that rather than just a big list,” Beorn said. “In a certain sense, this enables us to bring things back down to the individual level and see that in this house there was a young family, or a woman who worked as a nurse.”

Earlier this fall, he brought the list to Scholars’ Lab GIS specialists Drew Macqueen and Chris Gist, who started by looking at a single city block in the Lviv ghetto to see how they might best locate each resident and tag their locations with details about them.

“Initially the plan was just to try and do a proof of concept, but we ended up communicating with folks in Lviv and were able to get some data that allowed us to create what’s called a ‘locater,’” Macqueen said. “It’s similar to when you go into Google Maps and type in an address and it gives you a point location. We were able to create a locator where we could plug in Waitman’s spreadsheet of addresses and provide point locations – a rough location for where each of these people would have lived.”

What started as a test of a single block quickly grew, and the Scholars’ Lab team has been able to plot 16,000 of the 18,000 names so far. When users click on a location point on the map, they learn about the residents there. If they click on an apartment building, for example, they can first see how many people on the list lived there and then scroll to learn more about each individual person. ...




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