‘The Holocaust Is Largely a Spatial History’: Interview with Harrie Teunissen, Map Collector

Warsaw Ghetto
Thursday, 3 April, 2014

Harrie Teunissen, a Dutch collector and curator of maps, searched and found hundreds of contemporary maps related to the Holocaust. He argues that maps are not mere illustration material, but historical sources in their own right. He investigates these maps and will curate an exhibition at the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum, called East of Auschwitz, Mapping the Holocaust in East Central Europe. Harrie participated in the EHRI expert meeting on Geography and Holocaust Research and will lecture at the EHRI Summer School in Amsterdam in July of this year. Although an 'amateur', he is a forerunner in the upcoming field of contemporary map research.

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background? How did you become a map collector and curator?

I studied psychology of culture and religion in Nijmegen and Paris and later Islamology in Leiden and Damascus. A big hobby, my partner John Steegh and I hold in common, is historic walking. An example: while tracking the long route Joanna the Mad walked in Castile behind the coffin of her husband Philip the Handsome, we depended on an old description of the itinerary the Queen took in 1507, on military topographical maps, mostly from before the Civil War, and on the fast changing infrastructure of modern Spain. We learned thus to read maps and landscapes with historical information and spatial imagination and that's how my passion for map collecting started. Years later, when we had similar experiences in parts of the Balkans, we collected and researched hundreds of old and recent maps. Our first exhibition was The Balkans in Maps, five centuries of struggle about identity in the Library of Leiden University in 2003.

How many maps do you have in your collection? What are the themes?

Our private collection consists of some 10.000 maps and 1350 atlases and travel guides, mostly from 1750 – 1950. Its main themes are water management, city development, ethnic relations, military conflicts and migrations.

How many maps have you collected that are related to the Holocaust? Where and how do you find these maps?

It is not that easy to define which wartime maps relate to the Holocaust and which maps do not. Should we include maps on German Lebensraum? The Einsatzgruppen used maps of the Wehrmacht. Thus, for studying the topography of 'the Holocaust by bullets' in East Central Europe, German military maps are indispensable. But all in all, we collected a couple of hundreds of maps and topographical plans related to the identification, localisation, persecution and destruction of ‘the Jews’. We also have dozens of contemporary atlases and books containing such maps. In recent years, I have started to make scans of important Nazi maps and of rare Jewish maps in collections of archives, libraries and museums. The key to collecting contemporary maps of the Holocaust is diversification, to look in several places. Ebay used to be a treasure trove, but nowadays most maps are found on non-English sites. Still, the old network of antiquarians and friends signalling interesting bargains remains very important.

Is there a special link between the Holocaust and maps? Why did you start focusing on this theme?

The Holocaust is largely a spatial history. Elie Wiesel wrote: ‘The Nazi’s aim was to make the Jewish universe shrink’. This aim required a process of reducing multiple and often mixed spheres of identity to Jewish versus non-Jewish spaces. A special approach to analyse this process implies studying wartime maps and maps reconstructed from memory. It can also require designing new maps with historical GIS (Geographic Information Systems). These maps visualise great amounts of textual data and present their underlying spatial patterns of which the interacting Nazis, victims and bystanders were only partially aware. I started mapping the Holocaust almost by coincidence while comparing our wartime maps of Warsaw with the basic ghetto maps that dominated the Internet. When I discovered that these could not be correct, I decided to study the spatial history of the Warsaw ghetto. In July 2011, at the '24th International Conference on the History of Cartography' in Moscow, my Topography of Terror: Maps of the Warsaw Ghetto (www.siger.org/warsawghettomaps) caused a big surprise. No one had ever seen such ghetto maps and my spatial approach was quite new to the map historians. This greatly encouraged me to continue the project.

What is the status of research and collecting of maps when it comes to Holocaust research?

Detailed maps on destroyed Jewish communities can be found in Yiddish and Hebrew Yizkor books with plans reconstructed from memory. Most of these were published in Israel in the fifties and sixties and can be found in the collection of Yad Vashem. Most maps in their Encyclopedia of the Ghettos during the Holocaust stem from such sources. Nowadays, geography projects on the Holocaust use mainly historical GIS which produce (interactive) maps that visualize its spatial dimensions and analyse Jewish versus non-Jewish spaces. A website on ‘Geographies of the Holocaust’ at the USHMM shows fine examples (www.ushmm.org/learn/mapping-initiatives/geographies-of-the-holocaust). However, I know of not one academic institution that systematically collects and researches still remaining Holocaust maps. That field is left to 'amateurs' like myself and internet communities like Gesher Galicia (maps.geshergalicia.org), who collect all kinds of map scans, allowing people to reconstruct the topographical history of their Jewish roots in certain regions. This is just the beginning.

You participated in an EHRI workshop on Geography and Holocaust research (May 2013, at the International Tracing Service, Bad Arolsen, Germany). What was your role in this workshop? Did it meet with your expectations?

I had expected the workshop participants to agree that contemporary maps are more than a means to locate old place names, or merely illustrations of regional contexts. They are historical sources in their own right. Also, I wanted to demonstrate to the participants the importance of investigating the extent to which wartime maps were instrumental in the organisation of terror and of resistance. We should not forget that spatial research and making maps played a prominent role in Nazi planning. My presentation (www.siger.org/holocaustincontemporarymaps) caused much surprise because of the multitude of contemporary maps of the Holocaust I had found. On the other hand, I was equally impressed with projects like www.holocaustatlas.lt and www.campifascisti.it, where Google Maps are used as the geographic basis for presenting many texts, photos and interviews on parts of the Holocaust to a large public. Although these modern maps can cause historical misunderstandings, they are easy to use and don't need big investments. I expect such sites will have a great future.

What do you think EHRI can do for Holocaust related map research?

EHRI could initiate an international project which helps to localize, catalogue, digitize and connect the multitude of still remaining maps related to the Holocaust. I will give you two examples to underscore the necessity of such a project. The Library of Congress in Washington D.C. holds the world’s biggest map collection, but its five million maps are not catalogued. Its Map Reading Room is a treasure trove for Holocaust maps. I found, among others, several large ethnographic maps on Ukraine. In the German Bundesarchiv, special maps are well catalogued but topographical sketches within larger documents aren't.

Starting May this year, you will curate an exhibition at the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum. Could you tell us a little about this exhibition and what your aim is?

The exhibition is called East of Auschwitz. Mapping the Holocaust in East Central Europe (www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDhsUWMU74Y). Auschwitz as the symbol of the Holocaust tends to exclude the largest group of Holocaust victims: the mostly Yiddish speaking 'Eastern Jews' (Ostjuden) of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine and Romania. In the countries under communist rule, witnesses and chroniclers were forbidden to present these victims as Jews. Therefore the Riga exhibition explores, with Nazi and Jewish maps and some photos, what happened to the Jews 'East of Auschwitz'. This exhibition is inspired by Timothy Snyder, who argues in Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (New York 2010) that the almost public 'Holocaust by bullets' by Einsatzgruppen and local militia was made possible by the double break of sovereignty in this region, and also by Dan Michman who states, in The Emergence of Jewish Ghettos during the Holocaust (New York 2011), that ghettos were established only east of Auschwitz as a reaction of local Nazi leaders to the perceived danger of the Ostjuden.

You are going to lecture at the EHRI Summer School in Holocaust Studies in July this year in Amsterdam. What will your contribution be about?

I would like to introduce and discuss, with map examples, the following themes:

1. Nazi research on vital space (Lebensraum) versus Jewish space, and Himmler’s colonies of Volksdeutsche;

2. Why there were only Jewish ghettos east of Auschwitz and how geophysical conditions and national traditions influenced ghetto uprisings;

3. The role of ethno cartography in the planning of cleansings and killings.

Do you have other plans for the future concerning maps and Holocaust research?

I hope to redesign on a larger scale and with the original maps the exhibition East of Auschwitz in Western Europe. The Belgian Museum on Holocaust and Human Rights, the Kazerne Dossin in Mechelen, agreed to explore this possibility. Apart from that, I would like to place parts of this unprecedented tragedy within broader histories. This is not only because I get haunted by the 'terrifying details' of the constant massacres, but also because reconstructions of Jewish traditions and cultures from before the Holocaust are likewise needed. So I am writing, with Leo Frijda, a great connaisseur of Jewish literature, a literary travel guide, Meridian Czernowitz. Maps play an eminent role in studying the shifting Jewish topography of this city ‘where people and books lived’ (Paul Celan). From pre WWI Austrian maps, via Romanian city plans and Nazi ethnographical maps, up to Jewish maps on ghettos and camps in Transnistria and on the Thoroughfare IV in Ukraine. We will conclude with the diaspora of the surviving Jewish authors from Czernowitz. Then, we'll see what comes next.

Illustration above: Part of the secret German military city map of Warsaw with manuscript plan of its ghetto by SS-Sturmbannführer Max Jesuiter, ± November 14, 1940. Scale of 1 : 20.000.

Illustration below: Part of the Czernowitz sheet of the secret ethnographic map of Romania by the Vienna team led by SS-Sturmbannführer Wilfried Krallert, 1941. Scale of 1 : 200.000.