Line of sight

Anne Knowles uses technology to reconstruct and re-examine the past
Photo by Adam Küykendall

Line of sight

Anne Knowles uses technology to reconstruct and re-examine the past

One German came by, a(n) officer said, ‘You Jews are supposed to go to Palestine.’ But … nobody had any idea what they had in mind to do.

Holocaust survivor Jacob Brodman, born April 24, 1920 in Nowy Sącz, Poland. Brodman was in law school when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. He was interviewed April 13, 1989 in Sarasota, Florida; his testimony is part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum collection.

History is not dusty or dead, says Anne Knowles. It seems settled and forever, but it’s being remade all the time. Stories are never over.

Knowles knows that well. The historical geographer has pioneered the use of technology to re-examine past events, including the Holocaust.

For a decade, the co-founder of the Holocaust Geographies Collaborative has used geographic information systems (GIS) to reconstruct landscapes of the genocide.

Place is important for Knowles, who views the Holocaust as fundamentally a geographical phenomenon. Location matters.

She asks where and when to learn how and why the Nazi regime’s annihilation of 6 million Jews could have happened.

Using GIS, she can map any information that has an attached location, including births and deaths.

By layering or combining various pieces of information — in which location is the key variable — trends and relationships over space and time become visible.

Illustrating such data can advance and broaden perspectives, Knowles says.


Because the Holocaust was large and complex, technology is key to teasing it apart for greater understanding. Trying new ways to examine the past results in aha moments, and new questions, says Knowles.

The Colonel James C. McBride Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Maine anticipates the discoveries will continue for decades.

Researchers with the Holocaust Geographies Collaborative have mapped where Jewish women, men and children were captured, assaulted and killed. They have mapped death marches, SS concentration camps, Jewish ghettos and other aspects of the genocide.

So I looked out and see 10 people walking in one row towards the park and between them my late father … . And they (the Nazis) start shooting … one after the other. My late father was the third man … he said, ‘I will give you everything … whatever you want from the city, let the people live.’ Then Haman … laughed and said, ‘I will take it myself’ and shot him in the stomach first and then shot him in the head.

In 2005, Knowles was sitting at her desk at Middlebury College when she got a call from Michael Haley Goldman, then a staff member of the research arm of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

“He talked so fast,” Knowles remembers. “He knew of GIS and wanted to learn more about its potential for Holocaust scholarship. I had chills and visions of what could be done.”

Knowles had edited Past Time, Past Place: GIS for History and she was in the midst of a 16-year project that would result in her book Mastering Iron: The Struggle to Modernize an American Industry, 1800–1868.

Goldman’s call led to an invitation for Knowles to help organize a two-week summer research workshop on “Geographies of the Holocaust” at the museum.

She and a group of eight geographers and Holocaust historians discussed possible benefits of applying geographic methods, including spatial analysis and visualization, to the study of the Holocaust.

The atmosphere was electric and the attendees had great chemistry, says Knowles. The scholars applied for and received National Science Foundation funding to examine the Holocaust from many geographical perspectives.

The first members of the Holocaust Geographies Collaborative included Alberto Giordano of Texas State University; Tim Cole of Bristol University; Paul Jaskot, who was then with DePaul University, now at Duke University; Simone Gigliotti, then with Victoria University, now at Royal Holloway, University of London; Waitman Wade Beorn, then with University of Nebraska Omaha, now at University of Virginia; Anna Holian of Arizona State University; Marc J. Masurovsky, consultant historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; and Erik Steiner of Stanford University.

In recent years the team has grown to include scholars with expertise in Eastern Europe and additional research methods.

In the fall, it was already cold, they shipped us to Auschwitz. We are traveling three days to Auschwitz in cattle cars. Same story, no food, no water, not nothing. People breaking out from the trains… they jump from the trains and broke their hands … and their legs … . We came to Auschwitz on the railroad tracks. Mengele came around … . He was asking if you’re twins (for experiments). We got to Birkenau … . People from Auschwitz built the chimneys … built their own crematorium.

At Middlebury, Knowles’ students used GIS to make static and animated maps of the Jäger Report, a chilling record kept by Karl Jäger, a commander of one of the infamous attack squads called Einsatzkommando 3 (EK 3).

In five months, from July 2 to Dec. 1, 1941, Jäger’s mobile killing squad murdered 137,346 civilians, mostly Jews, via a “holocaust by bullets.”

Jäger’s detailed account of the executions included dates, locations with the number of people killed, and whether victims were adults or children, male or female.

He concluded in his report: “Today I can confirm that our objective, to solve the Jewish problem for Lithuania, has been achieved by EK 3. In Lithuania there are no more Jews, apart from Jewish workers and their families.

“The still available Work Jews and female Work Jews are urgently required and I can foresee that post-Winter, this manpower will still be most urgently required. I am of the view that sterilization of the male Work Jews should begin immediately to prevent reproduction. Should a Jewess nonetheless become pregnant, she is to be liquidated.”

One of the collaboration’s visualizations illustrates that in Lithuania during the last week of August 1941, the task force’s killings became full-blown genocide — the systematic destruction of a certain group of people based on their race, religion or citizenship.

That week, in addition to murdering Jewish men, EK 3 began exterminating Jewish women and children.

Animations informed by GIS can provide aha moments, says Anne Knowles. This animation shows the development of the Nazi regime’s concentration camp system over space (in Europe) and time (1933–1945). In late 1944, the number of main camps and labor camps exploded as Jews who had been confined to ghettos were forced into the system. By January 1945, 715,000 people were imprisoned in Nazi camps in Europe.
A Jewish woman carrying a baby walks toward the gas chambers with three young children. They had just undergone the selection process in May 1944 on the ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Yad Vashem

Knowles’ highly visual approach to history is evident in the collaborative’s 2014 book Geographies of the Holocaust. The 260-page illustrated hardcover explores Holocaust geographies at every scale of human experience from continental to individual.

Co-written and co-edited by Knowles, the book contains six case studies: “Mapping the SS Concentration Camps”; “Retracing the ‘Hunt for Jews’”; “Killing on the Ground and in the Mind”; “Bringing the Ghetto to the Jew”; “Visualizing the Archive: Building at Auschwitz as a Geographic Problem”; and “From the Camp to the Road: Representing Evacuations from Auschwitz.”

The book drew rave reviews.

But Knowles says that she and her colleagues were uneasy because their case studies so strongly reflected the perpetrators’ perspective and lacked humanity and Holocaust victims themselves.

Today, the collaborators are working on projects that integrate experiences of survivors and Nazi perpetrators.

It’s important for historians to tell emotional truths, she says.

“Scholarship needs more passion,” Knowles says. “We should move people.”

Jan. 18, they ordered us all to march. That was a death march … . Two feet of snow … we had to walk … . And the guns were popping. Who couldn’t walk got killed. So you make yourself walk … doesn’t matter how. You crawled and you walked. The whole night we walked.

The collaborative utilizes corpus linguistics to reveal emotional truths contained in spoken and written testimonies of 800 Holocaust survivors. Corpus linguistics is the use of computers to analyze large collections of text.

A method called geoparsing attaches geographic coordinates to place names in text. Knowles and colleagues hope to use geoparsing to map places in testimonies and eventually map movements of victims throughout the Holocaust.

Analysis of the testimonies also will include semantic tags to give researchers insight into survivors’ emotions and attitudes.

The collaborative has many questions, says Knowles. Mining the material will answer some and spark others: How were people’s experiences affected by the country where they lived? How did trauma affect awareness of place and ability to describe experiences? Did women perceive and remember experiences differently than men?

In 2015, Knowles was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, whose recipients “have already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship.”

She imagines using animations and geovisual storytelling to narrate the trajectories of people during the Holocaust.

In her book, tentatively titled Telling the Spatial Story of the Holocaust, Knowles wants to capture the immediacy of lived experiences and the spaces of intimate interactions, uncertainty and fear.

They loaded us up (in January) in open (railroad) cars … . People froze to death in these cars. Used to huddle together to keep warm, or we sat down on the dead people … . It took us eight days to go to Buchenwald … . And sometimes you were lucky, the Czechoslovakian people were very nice, used to stay on the bridges from the railroad and throwing in the rolls and the bread to the open cars.

“My goal is to convey the spatial restructuring of Europe during the Holocaust while interweaving personal stories that illuminate moments when individuals encountered the force of Nazi power,” Knowles wrote in her proposal.

Survivors who faced extreme trauma, deprivation, dislocation and isolation sometimes struggle to find the language to express moments and experiences, she says.

The messages might be stark and simple: “I was cold.” “The mud stuck on my boots.”

Women in the barracks of the newly liberated Auschwitz concentration camp. Liberation of Auschwitz began Jan. 27, 1945. Image from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park

Some interviews contain long silences; some survivors return again and again to one topic.

The book, says Knowles, will demonstrate the enormous range of Holocaust experience in place. She also hopes to bring together Nazi precision of space with victim experiences.

Listening to and reading survivor testimonies can be difficult and demands intense focus, she says.

“We’re confirming the worst in humanity so (society) can’t pretend it doesn’t exist,” says Knowles.

When I was in Germany, I went twice to Czechoslovakia and Poland to look for the family and I have seen we have nothing. Nobody was left.

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