Texas State geography professor is using modern science to study a historical phenomenon By Mary-Love Bigony, University Marketing
Growing up in Treviso, Italy, Alberto Giordano heard chilling stories from relatives who had lived through the horrors of World War II: bodies hanging from lampposts and streets strewn with human remains, not to mention the disastrous aerial bombardment of Treviso itself.
Now an associate professor in Texas State’s Geography Department, Giordano has received a grant from the National Science Foundation to study the darkest chapter of World War II: the Holocaust. He is co-leading a multinational research team in the first systematic examination of the geography of Holocaust, which involved the killing of an estimated 6 million people by the Nazi regime.
High-tech Tools Giordano and his colleagues will use Geographic Information Science tools and technologies, including spatial analysis, geovisualization, and geographic information systems (GIS). GIS allows scientists to view, interpret and visualize data in many ways that reveal patterns and trends.
“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,” Giordano says. The researchers hope to answer questions about the Nazis’ strategies for moving their Jewish captives into and out of concentration camps and the forced evacuations or death marches from concentration camps at the end of WWII. They will examine the accuracy of eyewitness accounts from concentration camps, daily life inside the Budapest ghetto, and the extent and characteristics of the deportation of Jews in Italy.
Giordano first met some of the members of the research team at a conference in 2005. “We started working together and doing some pilot studies to see if GIS could be used to study the Holocaust,” Giordano says. “We submitted an application to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., to hold a workshop in the summer of 2009.” Nine people attended the two-week workshop, which led the team to apply for the grant they received from the National Science Foundation.
“Previous historical scholarship on the Holocaust has focused on Nazi policy, individual camps, particular atrocities, or the history of certain communities, groups or nations,” Giordano says. “Ours is the first project to take a general view of the Holocaust as a multi-layered, multi-scaled event and to analyze it using GIScience methodologies.”
A Personal Perspective Giordano brings a unique point of view to his research. His uncle was a member of the Italian resistance movement that fought the Nazis occupying Italy and Greece after 1943. “Many relatives from my grandmother’s side of the family were killed during the resistance movement in northern Italy,” he says. “And my grandmother used to talk about some of the things she saw during the war.”
Europeans have a different, more personal view of World War II and the Holocaust than Americans do, Giordano believes, because Europeans grew up listening to stories from relatives who experienced the war firsthand, in their own country. “It’s different when you hear stories from people who were actually there,” he says. “I can study the Great Depression, but it’s not the same as talking to relatives and people who lived through it.”
Giordano became interested in maps and geography as a young child. “I decided to become a geographer when I was 7,” he says. “Of course when you’re 7, you think that being a geographer means you’re going to be an explorer. I was in the second grade then, and I had to pass a national exam to go into the third grade. The topic of the exam was geography, and I did a project on the rivers of Russia. So I made maps of the rivers of Russia and ever since then I’ve loved maps.”
Today he shares that love of maps and mapmaking, as well as his expertise in GIS and GPS, with his students at Texas State. “Dr. Giordano is indeed a rising star in our discipline,” says Dr. Philip Suckling, chair of Texas State’s Department of Geography. “In addition to his groundbreaking research, he is a very popular teacher and an outstanding, cooperative colleague.”
Mapping the Holocaust “We will use GIS to map and analyze deportation by region, place, identity and time,” Giordano says of the current study. “We will examine Auschwitz camp experiences in the context of physical and perceptual space, and map individual stories to, through and from Auschwitz.”
Giordano says the Germans deported about 10,000 Jews from Italy. To determine why and where the Nazis moved these people, the team will look for patterns in the Nazis’ movement.
“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,” he says. “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. 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.”
Giordano and the team are working closely with the Holocaust Museum’s registry of Holocaust survivors, which lists names of the survivors, their parents’ names, dates of birth, the train convoy they were assigned, dates of arrest and the camps to which they were taken. The registry includes more than 196,000 records from people of all backgrounds living all over the world.
The current study will end in 2010 with a workshop open to the public and a book that presents the major findings of the case studies. And Giordano’s interest in the Holocaust will continue to be both professional and personal. “When this work is done,” he says, “I’d like to propose a similar study of the whole Holocaust.”
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Alberto Giordano file
Hometown: Treviso, Italy
Education: BA, University of Padua (Italy), 1987; MA, University of California Santa Barbara, 1994; PhD, Syracuse University, 1999.
He said it: “I think the work we are doing studying the Holocaust has the potential to help in the study of genocide that is occurring in the world today.”
What surprised him: “The Holocaust Museum is one of the most visited museums in Washington, D.C. I was surprised by how many visitors they have from the American heartland — Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma — people who have no obvious connection to the Holocaust.”
Et cetera: He was the cartographic editor of the Thematic Atlas of Italy, the Touring Club Italiano and the National Research Council of Italy.
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