Visualizing Holocaust Testimony

Anne Knowles, Laura Strom and Levi Westerveld (Middlebury College)

Oral testimonies by Holocaust survivors are crucial documents of historical events and personal experience. They are also very moving, emotional narratives. In 2014, the Holocaust Geographies Collaborative, an international research group of historians and geographers, shifted their focus from using GIS and conventional mapping to seeking new methods for visualizing and analyzing survivors’ testimonies, drawing on the over 52,000 oral testimonies in the Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive. Our research team at Middlebury College has taken a bottom-up approach to a few sample testimonies. By listening over and over to these stories, using a variety of manual and computer-based methods, we have teased out the spatio-temporal information they contain, while also diagramming the narrative structure of each interview. Our initial results demonstrate the value of slow thinking in the early stages of research, a process we have come to call inductive visualization; the potential to retain the nuance and depth of human experience while seeking spatio-temporal patterns; the serious challenges digital methods pose when working with emotional, narrative material; and the value of developing an intimate relationship with one’s historical sources. Our work has also shown that collaboration is essential for developing creative solutions to research problems.