The Holocaust was a profoundly geographical event that caused mass displacement and migration, destroyed or fundamentally changed thousands of communities, and created hundreds of new places for the concentration of population, the exploitation of labor, and the mass murder of millions of people. Yet its spatial characteristics and temporal dynamics have scarcely been studied as explicitly geographical phenomena. Nor have scholars critically considered the complex and varied range of spatial scales at which the events constituting the Holocaust took place, from the individual body to the continental expanse of Europe. Through a partnership with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) and access to its exceptionally detailed datasets, the research team will build a set of GIS applications and geovisualizations to carry out four overlapping and interlinked case studies on (1) the evolution of the spatial system of concentration camps; (2) a comparative study of victim transports from France and Italy; (3) a localized study of forced evacuations or death marches from concentration camps at the end of WWII; and (4) a detailed study of the Budapest ghetto. These cases have been chosen for their suitability for GIScience modeling and analysis at a variety of scales and because they represent the range of spatial experiences of Holocaust victims (ghettoization, transportation, incarceration in the concentration camp system).

This project will be the first systematic examination of the geographies of the Holocaust. Previous historical scholarship on the Holocaust has focused on Nazi policy, individual camps, particular atrocities, or the history of certain communities, groups, or nations. This project will take a synoptic view of the Holocaust as a multi-layered, multi-scaled event and analyze it by employing geographic information science (GIScience methodologies. For GIScience, the challenges posed by historical source data make this project a significant opportunity to advance new approaches to metadata and source interpretation. Our research methods will provide models for other scholars working in historical GIS as well. Few studies have moved historical GIS (HGIS) beyond the important but conceptually limited stage of infrastructure development to grapple with substantive research questions. Even fewer HGIS projects have examined historical events or conditions of major social significance. This project does both.

The results of this project will be disseminated through professional conference presentations, a final workshop at the USHMM open to the general public, peer-reviewed journal articles, a book co-edited by the two PIs with contributions from all the project's participants, and an interactive website on the Geographies of the Holocaust to be built and hosted at the USHMM. Finally, data and GIS applications will be deposited at the USHMM Archives and the Registry of Survivors for long-term preservation and dissemination.

Project Report

The Holocaust Historical GIS project is the first research venture to explore the potential for using GIS (geographic information systems), spatial analysis, and geovisualization to study the Holocaust. A research team of six Holocaust historians and four geographers and many student assistants has collaborated for four years to see what new light these methods might shed on major events in Holocaust history. We organized our case studies around the concept of scale: Continental scale – development of the SS concentration camps system over space and time Regional scale – arrest and deportation of Jews throughout Italy Urban scale – experience of Jews in the Budapest ghetto Scale of the built environment – the concentration camp at Auschwitz Individual scale – experience of victims evacuated from Auschwitz Mixed scales – the regional and individual geographies of mass murder of civilians by the Einsatzgruppen (killing squads) in Lithuania and Werhmacht soldiers in Belarus Since few scholars have studied the geography of the Holocaust, we had to determine the locations and spatial and temporal patterns of events before we could begin to analyze them. We therefore developed GIS databases of the camps system, Jews in Italy, the Budapest ghetto, Auschwitz, and Einsatzgruppen actions in Lithuania, and used other methods to map evacuations and Wehrmacht atrocities. Our results include the first detailed datasets and maps of change over time for many of these events as well as significant findings. Visualizing the camp system’s development shows tremendous change within the SS system from 1932 to 1945. Animated maps vividly display this dynamism, demonstrating their value for teaching. Analyzing data on the labor of camp prisoners revealed that fewer German armaments facilities achieved production than scholars previously thought; camp prisoners’ lives were destroyed pointlessly in brutal construction schemes that never benefited the Reich. Mapping the construction of Birkenau, the massive labor and death camp at Auschwitz, recast it as a sometimes chaotic work site, which may explain why escapes from Auschwitz peaked while Birkenau was being built. By translating Nazi architectural records into database form, we have been able to map which buildings were actually constructed and which were only planned, which helps us see where pragmatic concerns related to war or genocide displaced the Nazis’ grand plans for the camp. The Budapest study revealed that many Jews lived among non-Jews, making the Budapest ghetto very different from walled ghettos in other European cities. GIS network analysis enabled us to see which neighborhoods in the dispersed ghetto had best and poorest access to food, hospitals, and the Swedish legation where Jews tried to obtain papers to escape persecution within Hungary. GIS analysis in the Italian study revealed differences in the experience and demographic characteristics of arrested Jews related to the geography of arrests, for the vulnerability of certain kinds of people depended on whether they were captured by German soldiers (mainly in cities) or Italian police (in smaller towns and villages). The evacuations study used field work, GIS, conceptual mapping, and graphic textual analysis to situate victims’ accounts in the landscapes through which they marched and locate their experiences emotionally and in place. One of the chief outcomes here was finding methods capable of analyzing extremely sensitive, subjective evidence while reconstructing journeys that are among the most difficult events to document in the Holocaust. The Einsatzgruppen and Wehrmacht study combined GIS with field wor and close reading of testimony. Map animation revealed that attacks against Lithuanian Jews were geographically complex, spasmodic, even chaotic, very different than the linear thrust shown in previous maps. A locational model developed in this study provides a framework for interpreting the differing spatial patterns of killing at the regional scale and the moral significance of individual killers’ geographical position in relation to killing sites. The results have far exceeded our expectations. Based on the response of audiences to dozens of presentations in the USA, Canada, Europe, Israel, and other countries, this project demonstrates that geographical methods and questions have much to offer Holocaust Studies, history, genocide studies, and related fields. The case studies show that GIS mapping and analysis, along with other geographical methods, enable scholars to probe complex historical phenomena, and that applying these methods to the Holocaust raises new questions and can provide valuable insights. The research team is particularly excited by being able to distinguish between what perpetrators planned and what actually happened on the ground, and by the enhanced capacity to compare events, experiences, and many kinds of evidence. The project has also had a significant impact on students, particularly undergraduates at Middlebury College and graduate students at Texas State University, whose research and visualizations were major, substantive contributions to the project. Findings will be published in our book, "Geographies of the Holocaust," and on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website,

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Antoinette WinklerPrins
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Middlebury College
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