Holocaust Geographies Collaborative January 2016 Visit and Lecture (Summary)

The Holocaust Geographies Collaborative pose with Wolf Gruner next to a Center banner.
From left to right: Alberto Giordano, Anne Knowles, Wolf Gruner, Paul B. Jaskot, and Tim Cole.

Holocaust Geographies Collaborative Visits the Center for a Week of Research

In early January, four members of the interdisciplinary Holocaust Geographies Collaborative – Tim Cole (University of Bristol), Alberto Giordano (Texas State University), Paul B. Jaskot (DePaul University), and Anne Knowles (University of Maine) – arrived at the Center’s invitation for a second visit to the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research for a week of intensive discussion, research, experimentation, and collaboration. They arrived eager to spend time together planning the next phase of their research, refining their research questions, and devising the methodology for their next steps.

These members of the Holocaust Geographies Collaborative first visited the USC Shoah Foundation during January 2014. The same year, their pioneering book Geographies of the Holocaust was published by Indiana University Press. In the book, the multidisciplinary team uses spatial analysis, mapping, and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to explore the places and spaces of the Holocaust. The six case studies in their volume range in geographic scale – moving from the continent to the nation to the region to the ghetto to the camp and even to the scale of the individual bodies marching out of Auschwitz in January 1945. In addition to space and place, the authors explore and map time and change over time in the case studies offered. Using spatial methods and asking questions related to place and space led to new and exciting discoveries about the history of the Holocaust.

One of the challenges the group discovered in the first phase of their research is the difficulty of visually representing victims, survivors, and their experiences in the maps the group created. Many of the meticulous maps in their book represented the places and spaces created by the perpetrators and seemed to omit the victims’ and survivors’ personal experiences in and around these locations. In the next phase of their research, the group’s aim is to populate and humanize the maps they create about the Holocaust. In this phase they want to foreground the experiences and voices of Holocaust survivors. One key place to find the voices and experiences of survivors is testimony, which brings the group back to the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive.

In addition to spending time in in-depth discussion and research with each other, the group had fruitful and productive consultations and conversations with the Center’s Director Wolf Gruner and Research Program Officer Martha Stroud.

They also consulted with members of the USC Shoah Foundation staff, including Kim Simon (Managing Director), Sam Gustman (Chief Technology Officer), Karen Jungblut (Director of Research and Documentation), Crispin Brooks (Curator of the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive), Sandra Aguilar (Archivist), and Kia Hays (Project Specialist in Collections). In these meetings, the group exchanged ideas about their desired research, asked questions about the structure and architecture of the Visual History Archive, its index, and geocoding, and learned about some of the new initiatives that could advance their research (the Visual History Archive Program, the New Dimensions in Testimony project).

In a public presentation at the end of their visit, the group shared some of the results of their week of research, their preliminary thoughts and plans for this next phase of research.

With over 52,000 Holocaust-related testimonies in the Archive, the group argued, there are likely patterns that exist across hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of testimonies. Yet those patterns remain undiscovered because there just has not yet been a way to analyze the testimonies at that scale. To find a way to accomplish this, the group wants to apply a method called Corpus Linguistics, which is computerized textual analysis of large bodies of text, to transcripts of testimonies from the Visual History Archive. They plan to start small, maybe with 50 transcripts, but then scale up to hundreds or even thousands of transcripts, eventually tens of thousands, to see what is revealed.

Their research questions for this next phase of research will center on the spatiality of survival. Survival is a profoundly spatial experience, they asserted. The researchers want to discover spatial strategies that are implicit in the narratives. People talk about space in lots of different ways, not always using names of places, which is what is most easily discoverable in the Visual History Archive. So how can the group discover these other ways? By exploring the myriad of possibilities of how people talk about space, survival, and the social, the group wants to develop a “spatial thesaurus” for Holocaust studies.

In the spirit of the fruitful, creative, and innovative experimentation that characterizes their work together, the group shared a list of some of the searches they might start with this summer using Corpus Linguistics methods. This list generated the most fervent discussions and contributions from the audience during the Q&A period following the group’s presentation.  Here are just three examples:

When survivors talk about food as part of their survival experience, where is the food they are talking about? The camp? The ghetto? Bread is commonly mentioned in testimonies. How many testimonies mention bread? Sharing is often mentioned in discussions about bread. Who do survivors most often share bread with? What does that reveal about space, social relationships, and survival? Are there other activities often mentioned when talking about bread besides sharing? Maybe “hiding”?

Groups of five seem significant in the testimonies. Five is a number constructed by the SS, putting people in rows of five. But people in camps and ghettos also often began organizing themselves or putting themselves in groups of five. Who are in the five? Why? How does the group of five shift and change as groups disband and reform through different spaces and through time?

Labor played a very significant role in people’s survival. If the scholars search the transcripts for “carry,” “dig,” “sack,” or “brick,” will they find survivors talking about labor in ways that are not currently indexed as labor (or “construction forced labor”) in the Archive? These kinds of searches have the potenital to greatly expand the analysis of women’s labor, for example, which is currently rarely indexed as such. Additionally, by looking at the words that come before and after “dig,” “sack,” “carry,” or “cement” in the transcripts, what will the words most commonly associated with these words reveal about the many dimensions — including spatial and temporal dimensions — of labor and survival?

In these examples and others they offered, the scholars illustrated how the spatial is social, and the social is spatial. Every space produces a kind of social relationship, and spaces are constantly changing. They hope to illustrate that a spatial history of the Holocaust is a relational history.

Through investigating these questions, the group plans to ultimately create new ways of visualizing and visually representing the geography of the survivors’ lifeworlds. The group hopes that with this research, they will connect individual experiences and particularities to the material sites that they visualized and analyzed so powerfully in the first phase of their research.

The scholars from the Holocaust Geographies Collaborative will be developing these future stages of their research in close conjunction with the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research, given the centrality of Visual History Archive testimonies to their plans.


Summary by Martha Stroud


GIS Lecture, January 2016

In their talk, Cole, Giordano, Jaskot, and Knowles described the new research interests and goals that they have honed during their visit to USC Shoah Foundation’s Center for Advanced Genocide Research from Jan. 8-14. At the core of their research questions is the desire to foreground the experiences and voices of Holocaust survivors.