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Grant allows geographers to seek new information about Holocaust

By Ann Friou
University News Service
September 16, 2008

Alberto Giordano

Alberto Giordano

Scholars of the Holocaust have studied the Nazis’ WWII extermination of six million Jews in Europe from historical, political and sociological perspectives, but rarely from a geographical perspective.

With a $430,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, a geographer at Texas State University-San Marcos will lead a multi-national team in a two-year study of geographical phenomena of the Holocaust. Using Geographic Information Systems technology (GIS), Texas State Geography professor Alberto Giordano and a team of geographers and historians from the U.S. and abroad will conduct four mapping projects that Giordano hopes will answer questions about:

  • the Nazis’ strategies for moving their Jewish captives into and out of concentration camps,
  • the forced evacuations or “death marches” from concentration camps at the end of WWII,
  • the accuracy of eyewitness accounts inside concentration camps,
  • daily life inside the Budapest ghetto.

The study will be conducted in association with the Survivors Registry of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which holds more than 4 million digital records on Holocaust victims in more than 300 databases and hundreds of scanned maps of wartime Europe and North Africa.

“The Holocaust is a geographical phenomenon because it involved the movement of masses of people from one part of Europe to another and into the camps. This required the Nazis to have a logistical system for moving people around,” Giordano said. In mapping the movements of more than 76,000 people whom the Germans deported from France and 10,000 whom they deported from Italy, Giordano will look for spatial patterns in where the Nazis moved these people, in order to answer why the Nazis moved them where they did.

“I have been studying the Italian records for more than a year, and I’m seeing that, in Italy, a lot of the deportees were moved to a number of locations before they were shipped to concentration camps,” Giordano said. “Often, the Germans would capture one member of a family in one city and other members in other places and reunite them before shipping them to the camps. For instance, the Germans seemed to ship families together, but we don’t know for certain that this was the case. Also, we don’t know why the Germans might have wanted to bring families together before sending them to the camps. By mapping the records of where people were captured and sent, I hope to find patterns that might help us answer these questions.”

The team will also study spatial data to understand the Nazis’ strategies for capturing Jews in urban and rural areas, and they’ll map and analyze data on the executions of women, children and old people in an effort to gain new information.

In the last months of WWII, the Germans abandoned the concentration camps, in response to the rapid advance of Allied troops from the west, south and east. In some cases, they killed as many of the prisoners as they could before leaving. In most cases, however, they took their prisoners with them, forcing them to march under horrendous conditions to new locations. The marches were known as “death marches” because many prisoners died along the way. The research team will examine the records of hundreds of individuals evacuated from a number of concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, Flossenburg and Buchenwald, between January and April 1945, analyzing the proximity of death march routes to population centers--an important factor in assessing the accuracy of bystander accounts and the degree of complicity, hostility and care by local residents. The team will also study digital models of historical maps as well as historical information about local weather and terrain conditions and photography of the evacuees’ burial sites to understand this harrowing experience.

In another project, the team will use geo-visualization to analyze eyewitness accounts of Holocaust events. For example, by using a contemporaneous aerial photo of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the team has analyzed the eyewitness account of a political prisoner who said he could see the crematoria from where he was incarcerated. Similarly, other eyewitness accounts will be analyzed using the same technique.

In a final project, Giordano’s team will map the Budapest ghetto, which evolved during the war from a large number of scattered homes to two separate closed ghettos. The project will explore the changing shape of the ghetto through time, the interactions between Jews and non-Jews in Budapest during the Holocaust, and the survivors' mental mapping of the wartime city. During the course of the project, the team will map thousands of places in Budapest where Jews lived in ghetto houses and the restricted places of entertainment they were permitted to visit. The research will highlight the shifting Jewish places of “absence” and places of “presence” in the city. Attention will also be given to the “International Ghetto” of Budapest, set up in November 1944. Researchers will look at the socio-economic and demographic characteristics of the Jews who were moved to the area, using a variety of sources, including census data and oral histories.

The grant is the first to come to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum from the National Science Foundation. Giordano and his team plan to publish a book containing the findings of their studies.

Giordano’s co-principal investigator on the project is Anne Knowles, Department of Geography, Middlebury College.   Team members include:

Waitman W. Beorn, Department of History, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
Tim Cole, Historical Studies, School of Humanities, University of Bristol, U.K.
Simone L. Gigliotti, History Programme, Victoria University, New Zealand
Anna M. Holian, Department of History, Arizona State University
Paul B. Jaskot, Department of Art and Art History, DePaul University
Marc J. Masurovsky, Registry of Holocaust Survivors, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Erik B. Steiner, InfoGraphics Lab, Department of Geography, University of Oregon