I was there

#History #Shoah #Holocaust #Second_World_War #Memory #Sensorial_Cartography

13 December 2018


How can one situate in space and visualize the personal experiences Holocaust’s victims? By apprehending the topological relations of places and displacements, and by graphically materializing the subjective and emotional dimension of lived experience, it is possible to draw the geography of these memories.

Levi Westerveld

Geographer, cartographer and artist

Anne Kelly Knowles

Historical Geographer, University of Maine
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I was working on the railroad station, all of sudden I see the train coming and loaded with people. And one train, in one car, my late sister looked out through the window and screamed:
— Help us, help us!
They were choking, it was heat... hot, was nothing to drink, was nowhere... everything was done in the railroad car. You must know that, somebody must have told you...

Jacob Brodman, 1989.

Jacob Brodman and Anna Patipa are two Holocaust survivors whose testimonies were recorded on camera in 1989. Their accounts are among the tens of thousands of video interviews carried out by Holocaust archives and other organizations around the world, including the approximately 54,000 video interviews in the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive.

Patipa and Brodman grew up in conservative, fairly prosperous Jewish families living either side of the Carpathian Mountains, Patipa in Czechoslovakia and Brodman in southern Poland. Their experiences, however, differed in striking ways that exemplify some of the many themes of Holocaust victims’ experiences in hiding and captivity, as forced labor and while waiting in dread to see what would happen next.

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Patipa and Brodman’s testimonies provide rich and unique windows onto the Holocaust. Their personal narratives are particularly evocative because the scale of narration is one we can all relate to. Their stories are built around personal experiences set in specific places and times. They describe, for example, changes in their daily lives when the war came to their town, the various ghettos and camps where they were held, family members they lost, and how, finally, they were liberated.

In 2017, we started a collaborative cartographic project to visualize these two testimonies. Our collaboration stemmed from our previous research on the Holocaust and a paper we wrote together which describes the need for new spatial analysis and visualization tools that better fit research methodologies for humanistic scholarship. We argued that there are intrinsic limitations in conventional cartography and Geographic Information Science (GISc) approaches, as they rely on a Cartesian coordinate system and hence require researchers to place data according to latitude and longitude, or to exclude spatial information that cannot be placed in that manner.

In the testimonies of Patipa, Brodman, and other Holocaust survivors, many of the places mentioned cannot be mapped in a Cartesian space. Either the speaker did not know exactly where they were during a particular event, or they misheard a foreign place name, or the event took place in an unmappable location, such as somewhere in a forest, or in a room or a moving train car.

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Even if some places in testimony could be placed precisely, doing so could minimize the significance of the place in the person’s experience by reducing it to one point among many other points. Yet, these subjectively experienced, emotionally significant places define the geography of testimonies; they are the deeply remembered spaces and places where survivors’ memories exist. They must be mapped.

I Was There, Places of Experience in the Holocaust is a map that uses a hybrid approach that combines topographical and topological mapping, which offers a solution to the challenges described above. The largest places with known geographic location were first placed in a Cartesian coordinate system. All other places mentioned in the testimonies of Patipa and Brodman were then placed according to their topological relationships to the places with known coordinates. Topology means, for example, whether a place was inside or outside of another place, and whether it was overlapping, nearby, or far away. These topological relationships were expressed either explicitly or implicitly in the testimonies and could be recorded and used to map every place.

Overall, our map is not accurate topographically, but it is a better representation of the complex and varied mental geographies in Patipa and Brodman’s testimonies than a conventional map would be. Levi Westerveld also developed a visual grammar to convey other aspects of the relational meaning of places on the map. Places were scaled relative to one another, rather than according to their actual size. This allowed us to highlight the places that were most significant to the survivors. Different levels of opacity indicate how frequently a place was mentioned in the interview. The more a place is mentioned in a testimony, the more likely that place was important and the more solid its color on the map.

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Levi Westerveld drew the circle for each place by hand to give them a personal quality. This will also help remind the reader of the presence of the cartographer as an interpreter of the testimonies. Faint arrows help identify movement and the sequential connections between places. Sequence is reinforced by the number of each quotation from Brodman’s and Patipa’s interviews. The quotes embed the voice of each survivor in the map, and help reconstruct their memories of events in distinct spaces.

This map is a static product which demanded time to produce. We purposely created it to be a large printed map for mounting on a wall, so that viewers could gain a sense of the geographical extent of the survivors’ experiences and movements as well as the particularity of places and events in their narratives. At the same time, we foresee that a software version of this hybrid cartographic approach could open doors to new spatial analysis and visualization for researchers in the humanities. In a topological space, any place with a known relationship to another can be mapped. Attribute information can be added for each place.

We, for example, could include information about the gender of the survivor, time, and what they observed or could not understand in a given place. Using information in its topological relationships, places can be analyzed, queried, and visualized in new ways.

Our map aims to convey the spatial dimension of the testimonies of Patipa and Brodman. But it also is an example of a novel cartographic mode which can be used in other humanistic research and cartographic work.

↬ Levi Westerveld & Anne Kelly Knowles.

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