Digital Project Proposal: Digital Mapping of Personal Stories during the Holocaust

An Online Exhibit of Jewish Evacuee Paths from Soviet-Occupied Poland to the Gulag during the Holocaust

By using Google MyMaps and PowerPoint, my digital project aims to create an annotated map and a graphical depiction of the paths taken from Soviet-Occupied Poland to the Soviet Gulags in Central Asia and Siberia by Jewish evacuees during the Second World War. Joseph Stalin sent over 200,000 Polish Jews to the inner parts of the Soviet Union because: 1. He considered them to be “suspect nationalities” prone to treason, who needed to be far away from the front line; 2. There was labor shortage, so they were used for forced labor. Dynamic cartography can better display the development of the their movement because it considers time and space in a different manner. Print maps do not show the fluid and changing relationship between pace, geography, concentration, movement, and place. Moreover, digital map annotations provide more information about the changing events and conditions. Lastly, a graphical depiction clarifies a complex series of events and improves the audience’s visual understanding of the process that evacuees had to undergo. These tools could facilitate new findings by assessing numerous geographic and topographical factors that affected the evacuees: for instance, if an evacuee was released from the Gulag on the terms on Polish Repatriation of 1946, the proximity of a town could be a matter of survival.

In particular I want to focus on a family history that depicts that displacement. Ellen G. Friedman’s Seven: A Family Holocaust History tells a story of one extended Polish-Jewish family that survived the Holocaust in the Soviet Union. The title of the book comes from the closeness that set seven individuals apart from the hundreds of thousands of other refugees in the Gulags of the USSR. The Seven—a name given to them by their fellow refugees—were Polish Jews from Warsaw, most of them related.

The project will complement the digital mapping dedicated to the book with a more general digital map of Polish Jewish evacuees’ journey. Their displacement tended to begin with 1. the arrest of Jews who fled from Nazi-occupied Poland on charges of spying. It was followed by 2. an interrogation, and the subsequent 3. train journey to 4. a prison where they awaited “a trial” as a “suspect nationality.” After that, many women and younger children were sent to 5. Soviet settlements, while Jewish evacuee men were typically placed in Stalin’s labor camps. Soviet guards and a resentful local population were likely to be a part of their daily lives. 6. The Polish repatriation act of 1946 allowed Polish evacuees to try and make their way back to their homes where Polish Jews were likely to find hostile and murderous neighbors. Every experience was different, and this project merely hopes to help people learn and understand their stories by using the available digital tools.

My project aims to create a more detailed digital map of the movement that would include Eastern Europe.

Google MyMaps would allow me to add points and draw shapes, which would be useful to differentiate between a Soviet labor camp, a prison, and a closed settlement. It also lets you add pictures and videos, which opens up an enormous and exciting opportunity to use digital archival collections (e.g. USHMM Online Photo Archive and Fortunoff Video Archive of Holocaust Testimonies). My project is about communicating and telling people’s stories through digital maps and graphic depictions. The project would result in an online exhibit of Jewish evacuee paths from Soviet-Occupied Poland to the Soviet Gulag during the Holocaust.


General public and scholars interested in the Holocaust and the Soviet Union

Existing projects

There are several related existing projects, including Holocaust History animated maps and Holocaust Geography Collaborative. USHMM uses animated maps such as the map on the Aftermath of the Holocaust to help the viewer understand the enormous scope and impact of the Holocaust. While the Holocaust Geography Collaborative underlines the importance of location, scale, resolution, territoriality and the space/place dichotomy for an expanded understanding of the Nazi genocide. The scholars of the collaborative use the dynamic digital environment and the use of GIScience to allow for visualizations of these spatial concerns in more robust and innovative ways. Another important inspiration for my project is Waitman Beorn’s graphical depictions. His project A Geography of Complicity concludes that the more willing soldiers often found themselves closest to the killing, spatially. It shows that extended physical contact with the Nazi genocidal project over time led most soldiers to become more deeply complicit.

A graphical depiction using PowerPoint of the positions of Wehrmacht soldiers during mass killings in Belarus. —Waitman W. Beorn, 2010

Plan for Outreach and Publicity

For outreach I aim to create a WordPress blog post about my project. In my description, I will kindly invite people to the readers to express their thoughts and suggestions. This should allow to get some feedback from the general public. The post will include the relevant tags and categories to make it easier for people to find it. I will also kindly write emails to scholars involved in the spatial geography project for some possible feedback and hopefully even a discussion.

Evaluation Plan

I aim to evaluate my digital project by assessing my WordPress blog post’s comment section. Another important type of feedback would be my email communication with the scholars of the Holocaust on their thoughts, questions, and suggestions regarding my project. I also hope to take advantage of living in Washington by making an appointment with one of the specialists on the Holocaust museum’s digital map project. I am particularly excited by the prospect of collaboration. Hopefully, it would be someone who perhaps holds a different set of technical skills or is interested in contributing in other ways,

2 Replies to “Digital Project Proposal: Digital Mapping of Personal Stories during the Holocaust”

  1. This is an important topic and you’ve done a great job of explaining how and why digital mapping would be useful as a way to understand and interpret this history.

    Anchoring the project tin particular historical source/text is a great way to make it specific, actionable and tractable.

    Google MyMaps would be a straightforward tool for you to use to make this work. There are other more sophisticated tools you might consider, but I think you have rightly identified a tool that will get the job done for your project without requiring you to learn a lot of technical aspects of a particular tool that would be challenging to pull off in the course. Using this tool will let you focus on the content instead of the tool.

    Your plans for outreach and evaluation make sense. With that said, I think you are unlikely to get a lot of engagement without thinking more specifically about your audience. Who would your users be? How would they find out about your project? If you can, it would be good to try and find some individual real people that you think might exemplify those users and do some informational interviews with them to come up with plans for how you could get this resource out to people like them and make sure it is something they would find interesting and engaging.

  2. What about the hundreds of thousands (over one million) of Polish refugees from eastern Poland (Kresy) that were deported to Siberia, beginning in 1940? My mother doesn’t remember the names of the towns where she and her family ended up; seeing a map might help jog her memory.

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