Visiting Researcher Maja Kruse conducts research on Holocaust landscapes


Interview conducted by Charlotte Gibbs (PhD student in History, University of Southern California, and Center Graduate Assistant)
January 12, 2024

Maja Kruse (PhD Candidate in Interdisciplinary Studies, University of Maine) presented at the Fifth International Graduate Student Conference on Holocaust and Genocide Studies, co-organized by the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University, the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, and the USC Dornsife Center for Advanced Genocide Research. At the conference, Kruse presented her research on mapping Holocaust landscapes. Kruse visited the USC Dornsife Center for Advanced Genocide Research for a week of research and spoke with us about her interdisciplinary research, the methodologies she employs, her history with working with testimony, and the wider significance of her work.

How did you come to study the Holocaust? How did you arrive at your current research topic?

During my undergraduate degree, I completed a major in German Studies and a minor in Geography and Geoinformatics. Through the German Studies program, I made contact with a history professor named Therkel Stræde, who is the leading expert on Danish experiences during the Second World War. With his focus in Holocaust studies, he helped me find out how I could uncover my grandfather’s wartime story. My grandfather was part of the Danish resistance movement. This experience led me to the archives for the first time. In these archives, I learned many things that my family didn’t even know about him and his brother, who was also part of the resistance. The archives contained photographs of the things my grandfather had blown up with his fellow resisters. It was really incredible.

The Germans captured the group and sent them to German prisons – indeed some of the resisters escaped to Sweden – but my grandfather and his brother ended up in a German prison. This experience of researching my family’s history during the Second World War sparked my interest in history and helped me understand how cool archives are. Then I did a class where I went to Theresienstadt to complete field work for 12 days. The goal of this trip was to understand the Danish perspective in this ghetto.

After completing my MA in German Studies, I decided to pursue my PhD University of Maine under supervision of Anne Kelly Knowles, where I am studying the geographies of the Holocaust. This position makes a lot of sense for me coming from a background in geography. I finally found a field where I could combine my interests in the scientific and the humanistic spheres. This mapping project is one where language, history, and geography come together, an intersection that I didn’t know existed before. In Maine, I took a class on environmental history with Mark McLaughlin, which I did not know even existed as a subfield, which I thought suited my interests. It opened my eyes to the field of geographies of the Holocaust and showed me how I could combine my interests and skills. I was reading Holocaust Landscapes by Tim Cole, who is my big inspiration. Of course, everything happened in the landscape, and of course it is important, so that is what led me to my project.

In November, you visited Poland to see some of these sites that you research and are digitally mapping – some of these maps you even presented in October. How was this trip?

The trip was relatively unplanned, and I could stay in the areas that I wanted to explore more or move on and see new places. I had some survivor testimonies that I had brought with me, and I wanted to see the specific place where they had gone and I could see on the maps that these were very significant terrains with lots of steep slopes, but to experience them was a different thing. The smaller and more rural areas have not changed much. Many houses had been left to basically just fall apart and it didn’t look like there was anything new being built. It is definitely different when you start getting into smaller towns.

Generally, it was so different to see these spaces I’ve studied and experience what the flatness of Poland actually means. I was just imagining that if there was a person running over the fields, I would see that person for so long because it is just flat and there is nothing to interrupt the eye. That really made a big impression when I was driving around.

One of the places that I went to was the area around Starachowice. There were numerous landscape elements represented here. There was a river between two steep slopes, and the Starachowice ghetto was up on one hill and there was a busy road on the other side of the river. Still to this day the road is very busy. There was in fact a group of people who escaped the ghetto by running down the hill, crossing the river, crossing the busy road, and climbing up the hill on the other side. As soon as they had crossed the river and road, they ran up the steep hill to arrive at a forest. I was able to drive around to the other side of the forest and these roads were way more rural, just a single road with houses along it. There was no traffic at all, and I didn’t see anyone else. And this is where they would have gotten food from the local peasants. Seeing this landscape helped me make sense of the journey that these people went through.

You have touched on the ways in which your project lies at an intersection of the sciences and the humanities. In your work, the maps you create are shaped by testimony, but in what ways do you see how the maps also shape how we understand testimony?

I am creating many different maps, but one of the maps I’m working on is a hiding suitability map. In these new maps I’m working on highlighting where the landscape is dangerous, and where it is safe. There are three generic sizes of towns: the bigger cities, such as Krakow, the smaller towns, and the villages (there is no depth in these spaces). This of course makes a huge difference if you are in hiding or on the run, you must steer away from these spaces. It also informs decisions about where these people may acquire food, such as stealing potatoes.

What constitutes what is safe or dangerous is based on what the survivors say in their testimonies. For instance, listening to testimony reveals the criteria that made someone feel safe or dangerous in the forest and surrounding landscapes, and whether the presence or absence of certain features or terrains or elements makes a difference.

I am currently listening to one testimony, in which the interviewee explains how he was part of a group of around 3,000 people in the Polish Parczew forest. The Germans didn’t dare going in because they knew the Jews and Polish partisans in the forest were armed, so instead the Germans surrounded the forest and started bombing it. But this survivor’s group of around five or six hundred people had crossed the road into a swampy area and hid there. This is what saved them. There were a lot of people who didn’t believe going into the swamp would save them nor wanted to go into it and stayed behind and fell victim to the German attack. I think it so interesting to see how the local knowledge of these people – because this happened right outside of his hometown – as they know their way around the swamp, and how to deal with it, but it is also just the presence of this swamp that saves them. Rather than just a flat field, there is a landscape element that is allowing them to find a hiding spot and survive an ambush.

Of course, there are other factors that determine the livability of forests for Jewish people who are hiding. There were people who were in small groups, but also people in groups where there were thousands. But there is also the dynamic where it was not just Jews hiding in the forest, but there were other groups such as Polish partisans. Sometimes the partisans were happy to help the Jews, but other times they were antisemitic or wanted their weapons. Therefore, these spaces also become sites of competition.

This isn’t your first time working with testimony – you have used it at the Danish Jewish Museum, as an indexer, as part of the Holocaust Geographies Collaborative research team, and now as a PhD student pursuing your own independent project. Recently, the Danish Education Ministry awarded you and your team a grant to develop teaching materials related to Danish testimonies. How have your interactions with testimony changed over time?

My past experiences definitely help me in my current research, particularly with the structure of the interviews and the format of the archives. The more indexing terms you know, the more that you can search for. There are so many terms and if you don’t really know how the content itself is indexed, it can be tricky to find what you want to find. Obviously, some terms are more generic, while others are more specific. I think I have become much better at finding exactly what I am searching for. Sometimes it becomes tricky when figuring out how much context to include, especially with an archive like the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive where testimonies are segmented.

I have indexed almost all the Danish testimonies in the VHA. I have also listened to many different groups and in different languages – I speak Danish, German, and English. From this experience, I have a good understanding of the Danish experience during the Holocaust and Second World War. I begin to see what is common between testimonies and where they differ. I think it is very valuable to understand what experiences you can compare between many people and what begins to stand out.

With my current dissertation research project, its focus is wider and focused on experiences throughout Europe. For my own research, it’s about the environment and environmental features. There are not as many indexing terms that cover them. For example, I’m looking a lot at the indexing terms that have to do with hiding in forests, swamps, and mountains, but, for weather for instance, there are minimal terms, such as ‘environmental conditions’ which encompasses a wider range beyond just weather. What is particularly valuable is how indexing terms can gesture towards certain places outside of the geographical tags.

I am also working on a project in Denmark with Therkel Stræde, Allan Cohn Shapiro, and the Jewish Information Center in Copenhagen. We received a quarter million Danish Crowns (more than 37,000 USD) from the Danish Ministry of Education to create teaching and learning materials for seventh to ninth graders in Denmark. The goal of the project is to prevent antisemitism, but also to let people know resources, such as the Danish testimonies, exist. These testimonies are often unused, but we hope that this project will alert people to these resources and how they can access them. We know from different surveys that have been conducted by the Claims Conference and Echoes & Reflections that teaching with testimony significantly makes a significant difference in terms of critical thinking and in terms of social responsibility. So, the team and I really believe that working with this kind of media is something that can teach children more productively about the Holocaust compared to the materials that exist already. I am also coauthoring an article with Therkel and Allan.

What are some of the questions and challenges with mapping methodologies? What do you enjoy about working with maps? What are sources that can be used in conjunction with your methodologies?

I feel like a detective when I use topographic maps. Many people aren’t using German maps nor hand-drawn maps by survivors and many people could benefit from exploring the ways in which these other sources and historical documents can be used. Photographs are another – this in combination with geography are incredible sources. I was always taught geography when we were georeferencing maps, to always georeference the churches because they always stay in the same place.

Finding the descriptions that survivors make after the war and then finding that on the maps from these descriptions – that is very cool. I don’t think accuracy is necessarily the most important goal, here either – the exact routes might not be the most important for my work. I am more interested in the interactions with the landscape, what the presence or absence of certain features meant for people and for their death or survival. The ambiguity is part of it, and how you speak about this ambiguity is where really interesting perspectives emerge.

If one always strives for accuracy, no one is going to get very far. It is the same with cartographers. Cartographers often grapple with questions of accuracy. Of course, there is a school where cartographers believe that they must have the highest degree of accuracy and that maps must be 100% believable. The topography is the exact landscape, but the topology is the relation people have with the topography. Therefore, it might not matter how far A and B are, but more important is how A is related to B. And I think that is a much cooler way to think about it.

I am always thinking about cartographic challenges and how to represent dynamic information. The question then becomes how do you convey something, that is simultaneously obscuring something?

What do you hope the future of mapping in the discipline of Holocaust Studies will look like? What are the wider applications of your research?

It would be a very neat outcome if people would become inspired both to use maps that already exist in their research but also to create their own. The bridge between the humanistic and the scientific is cool and I think more people can bring this into their work.

With my model, I have already experienced people approaching me with other projects at various conferences and presentations. There was one person who wanted to work with me on a project on human trafficking in the United States today, as my model could be used to determine which areas are high-risk areas where people might be trafficked from. This kind of geographic analysis can be applied broadly. Obviously, with my dissertation project I am working on something quite specific, but it is evident that this model and analysis can be used in other projects. Right now, I am focused on the Holocaust, but the actual methodology can be quite broadly applied.