Line of sight
Historical geographer Anne Knowles uses technology to re-examine the Holocaust. Utilizing GIS (geographic information systems), she explores how historical actions and the physical environment are woven together. For 10 years, she’s been reconstructing landscapes and illustrating data to broaden perspective of the genocide.
This was genocide, the premeditated destruction of entire peoples. But more terrible still were the concentration camps, which from the beginning had been the conspirators’ chief weapon against opposition of every kind.
At least another half million succumbed to starvation and disease, making a total dead of about 3 million. Included among the executed and burned were approximately 20,000 Russian prisoners of war who were delivered at Auschwitz in Wehrmacht transports.
The remainder of the total number included about 100,000 German Jews and great numbers of citizens from Holland, France, Belgium, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Greece and other countries.
Historical geographers look at the past as any historical scholars do, but what we bring to history that’s special is always considering the physical environment, what places mean to people, and how historical actions and the shaping of the environment are constantly going back and forth, woven together inextricably.
About 12 years ago I got a telephone call from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. saying that they were interested in taking a geographical approach to the Holocaust, specifically to use GIS — geographic information systems.
This sent a thrill down my spine, because I knew from working with GIS that you can map anything in history, and yet almost no one had mapped the Holocaust. I saw enormous potential. Ever since 2007, now going on 10 years, I’ve been working with colleagues around the world using GIS to do precisely that kind of mapping.
One of the discoveries we’ve made is rooted in the everyday awareness that seeing is believing. Holocaust historians have known for a long time that there were well over 1,000 concentration and labor camps, for example, managed by the terrible SS, but our mapping of 1,300 such places always comes as a shock to our audiences.
When you actually see how widespread the incarceration, punishment and death was across Europe, it makes a much bigger impact than talking about Auschwitz or talking about Dachau. In one way, simply showing how widespread the Holocaust was is worth doing.
One of the other discoveries we’ve made with GIS is at a much more local scale in the ghetto of Budapest, where Jews were living in confinement in thousands of apartments across the city. During 1944, for example, they were only allowed out of their apartments for three hours a day.
By using GIS we’ve been able to determine which parts of the dispersed Jewish ghetto had people who would not have had time to walk to a market hall to buy food and get safely back home within that three-hour opening of curfew. If you were caught on the streets as a Jew outside of the curfew hours, you could be shot.
The discoveries range from how the Holocaust may have affected individual people to its continental impact.
Taking a geographical approach to history and using high-powered, still fairly new technology like GIS actually enables people to use their intuitive geographical understanding of the world to understand not just the past, but present-day circumstances. We are all geographical beings, spatial beings.
When you acquire technological tools that help you think geographically, you’re actually tapping deep native abilities that all of us possess. I would like everyone to become a geographer, at least at the University of Maine and other universities, to learn GIS, because it will augment everything that you do and help you better understand the world.