EHRI Partner Polish Center for Holocaust Research | A Gateway to the Past – Database getto.pl
By dr Agnieszka Haska, Polish Center for Holocaust Research
“I am writing hastily, thinking that these pages will one day be found in a liberated Warsaw.”
This is a final sentence from a testimony written in June 1943 in the attic of one of the houses in Warsaw, where the author was hiding with her son after leaving the ghetto. She was writing at night, trying to recollect everything that happened to Warsaw Jews during German occupation and “render the picture precisely'' in a very impersonal manner. She also anonymized her testimony quite thoroughly – partially because of safety reasons, but one can also assume that it was her intention to make the narrative more universal, more objective. There is very little information the author is revealing about herself in the text – no names and surnames, no exact addresses in the ghetto -, only street names and the profession of her husband (doctor).
Not surprisingly, when in the 1950s this testimony was handed over to the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw (JHI), its description in the collection (signature 302/21) stated “author anonymous”. Even with these few clues, years after, we were able to identify the author, her name and biography. Crucial information here was provided from a project run by the Polish Center for Holocaust Research: a database collecting all information about Jews in occupied Warsaw getto.pl.
It maybe sounds cliché, but Holocaust research sometimes really resembles detective work, especially in cases where almost no-one and nothing was left after the war. This is a case of wartime history of Warsaw – not only lives were lost, not only were the vast majority of documents destroyed, but the whole population part of a city itself also perished. Unlike in other cases (and other cities), where historians have quite large amount of archival materials at their disposal, in Warsaw – especially regarding the history of Jews during German occupation – researching sometimes is more like picking small breadcrumbs from testimonies, memoirs, existing documents and other sources. Hence the idea of to take all the information about Jews in occupied Warsaw from a variety of sources and gather it in one place, making it accessible and useful to the other researchers, educators and the general public. This project was directly inspired by the research by Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak and their book “The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to Perished City” (first Polish edition 2001, English – 2009), and in the first phase, the database contained data collected by them about the Warsaw ghetto. In the second phase – from 2017 – the database was expanded to contain all the information about Jews outside the ghetto and those who were in hiding during the German occupation on the ‘Aryan’ side of Warsaw. The records are created primarily in Polish, but the database has also an English version; some of the records are already translated to English and our goal in the future is to translate them all.
Source materials used to create records are a result of extensive archival and bibliographical queries in Poland and abroad; the data collected from archival queries is entered into the database created using Semantic Web technology, searchable along nominative, event-based and theme-oriented lines. In other words, the database was designed in a way that enables its users to easily find related information on specific subjects: people, events, and places, but it is also searchable using number of various filters enabling users to narrow and specify search requests. For example, one can find records not only about specific places or names, but also categories of events – like theatre premières in the ghetto, official announcements by the Judenrat or cases of blackmail by szmalcowniks on the "Aryan" side. Each record contains a short description and bibliographical reference to the source material.
Interactive map of Jews in Warsaw
Furthermore, verified and analyzed data were connected to an interactive and modal cartographic tool, which helped make an interactive map of Jews in Warsaw during the Second World War. This map also has some interactive layers – a plan of the ghetto, the streets of the ghetto, pre-war Warsaw and contemporary Warsaw, which helps not only in geographical and historical analysis, but also serves as an educational tool. The database also contains a separate set of fourteen thematic plans of the Warsaw ghetto and a calendar of events from the ghetto history.
In the last few years, approx. 80,000 records have been entered into the database, based on 2,200 sources – testimonies, memoirs, documents, books and interviews. The database getto.pl is now a primary internet source for everyone looking for information about the Warsaw Ghetto and Jews in Warsaw during World War II. The records from the database are used every day by researchers, genealogists and the general public. Thanks to the gathered data and created cartographical tools it has been possible to research and publish articles concerning many topics, e.g. social structures in the ghetto, aid networks for Jews in hiding in Warsaw and the fate of individuals. It also creates an opportunity of further detailed historical, sociological, psychological, and cartographic analyses – broadening the sources of knowledge on the topic of the Holocaust and our understanding of it. But – first and foremost – the database getto.pl serves as a gateway to further archival queries, being an invaluable source about the Holocaust and fate of the biggest Jewish community in Europe before World War II and, therefore, co-creating a digital landscape of contemporary culture of remembrance. Thanks to information gathered and the search engine in the database, it was possible to establish that the details in the testimony mentioned at the start of this article, are similar to events in a book written in Swedish from 1983, Dagar i Warszawa 1940-1945. Minnen från tiden i gettot och utanför murarna (Days in Warsaw 1939-1945. Memories from the Warsaw Ghetto and Beyond iIs Walls). A quick glance at the testimony and Polish version of the book left no doubt that it was the same author. Her name was Zofia Brzezińska. Thanks to research enhanced by digital tools, testimony no. 302/21 from JHI Archive has no longer word “anonymous” in the description of the collection.
The testimony of Zofia Brzezińska “I Saw No Chance of Surviving, So I Began to Write” from the Jewish Historical Institute Archive was published in English by Yad Vashem in 2020.
The new version of the Database getto.pl and interactive map component were financed thanks to a research grant from the Polish National Science Centre, “Hiding in Warsaw on the 'Aryan' side, 1940-1945” and the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah grant (project “Jews Hiding in Warsaw on the 'Aryan' side, 1940-1945”). Continuous work and new functionalities are possible thanks to the grant from the Polish National Science Centre, “Between Help and Danger. Hiding on the ‘Aryan’ Side of Warsaw 1940–1945 — Phase II”. Development and continuation and private donations.
The Polish Center for Holocaust Research was established on 2 July 2003, as a section of the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences. It is the first and, so far, the only research institution in Poland dealing exclusively with Holocaust studies. The Center coordinates research and educational projects, grants, seminars, conferences, and workshops, and publishes books and papers by Polish scholars as well as translations of works in other languages. Since 2005, the Center also publishes an academic journal, Holocaust Studies and Materials (www.zagladazydow.pl). As an Association, The Center is a member of EHRI since EHRI-2 (2015).
Images by The Polish Center for Holocaust Research