A New Interactive Map of the Vilna Ghetto Asks: What Good Is History if It Isn’t Told?
The reVILNA digital mapping project seeks to restore the lives that were lived before they became anonymous victims
The history of the Vilna Ghetto usually goes something like this. On June 22, 1941, the German army invaded Soviet-occupied Lithuania and, within days, captured the capital, Vilna (today’s Vilnius). By July, the German military administration had seized control of all major civilian institutions; and on Sept. 6, 1941, 40,000 Jewish inhabitants were driven into two ghettos. The smaller Ghetto 2 was liquidated on Oct. 21. Ghetto 1—whose population by early 1942 had stabilized at about 15,000 to 20,000 Jews—was liquidated in September 1943. There were very few survivors.
The ghettos are in the cultural heart of modern-day Vilnius; within their historical borders are the Contemporary Art Museum, several of the city’s fanciest restaurants, bakeries, discos, luxury apartments, barbershops, and some great bars. Vokieciu gatve, the street that separated the two ghettos, is now a tree-lined boulevard with shops and cafés, and it leads directly from Rotuse (Town Hall), in front of which is a lovely plaza that hosts a constant run of festivals, concerts, protests, and events. When I lived in Vilnius, in 2010-2011, I discovered that my apartment’s courtyard abutted the smaller ghetto; I had moved there only because it was by far the best neighborhood in the city to live in.
Despite (or maybe because of) the ghettos’ centrality, virtually no trace of them remains. It is as if they’ve been effaced, scrubbed from history. Aside from a handful of token plaques (most of which are in Yiddish, the language of almost no one who visits and of almost everybody who was killed), and two or three hard-to-find, oblique, barely relevant statues, there is no physical commemoration at the sites. Locals generally have no idea where the ghettos were or even that there were ghettos at all.
reVILNA, a just-launched digital mapping project of the Vilna Ghetto, is the response: a virtual reclamation of the space. Using filters and a search function, visitors to the site can explore the ghetto on their own, or follow built-in storylines—sort of like virtual tours—which are either chronological or topical in nature and include resistance, health, education, government, art and culture, and more. There are more than 200 points (and counting), all painstakingly organized, paired with more than 150 photographs culled from archives around the world. It lends itself easier to demonstration than explanation.
reVILNA—which I have worked on for the past year and a half, and which counts among its partners YIVO in New York; the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum in Israel; and the Vilna Gaon State Museum in Lithuania—represents an enormous amount of research and development. Researchers went through memoirs, histories, archives, documents, etc., geographically tagging any significant site or event—where a school was, for example, or the hospital, or the brief uprising in the ghetto. Each point was then translated to coordinates of longitude and latitude (not always a simple task—the address numbers of the streets have shifted, and I frequently had to use overlays of historical maps to figure out where a building was). A similar process was gone through with photographs. The information was entered into a database, and with the help of Axis Maps, a leading digital cartography company, we designed and implemented a dynamic mapping software platform.
reVILNA is, in essence, an intuitive form of curation; there is little original research. The primary document used was Herman Kruk’s diary, Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania, translated and edited by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav. It’s a meticulous day-to-day chronicle of the ghetto and, as far as I am concerned, the single most edifying and astonishing document to come out of the Shoah. While the museums and books are well-researched, they tend to be badly organized or totally unorganized masses of information; it is, for the layman, extraordinarily difficult and time-consuming to gain any concrete understanding of the ghetto. The Vilna Ghetto, along with many other Holocaust sites, is almost always approached as a topic, not as a historical space.
There is a tendency to collapse the history of the ghetto into bullet points, to the bites of information considered the most important. These include the fact that Jews were rounded up, and Jews were killed. But such an approach guarantees that the richest histories of the ghetto remain virtually unknown. Because the most interesting—and arguably most important—parts of ghetto history aren’t the deaths, but how the inhabitants managed to live and even, given the circumstances, flourish. There was, for instance, a remarkable health-care system and hospital, where doctors, according to the poet and survivor Abraham Sutzkever, performed brain surgery; pharmaceutical manufacturing; sports competitions; a wildly popular library; full theater productions; more than half a dozen schools; literary and art competitions; a judicial system that included police, courts, juries, and prisons; a robust underground; extraordinarily complex politics; restaurants, cafés, barbers, parties, newspapers, and many more aspects and institutions of normal life.
Why a map, though? Because a map directly addresses the very special historical nature of the Vilna Ghetto, which is both spatially and temporally bound—that is, its physical boundaries were literal fences; and it did not exist in any manner before Sept. 6, 1941 or after Sept. 23, 1943. The Ghetto is not like a neighborhood, which comes into being or changes character only gradually; and it is not akin to a movement or period, which are always historically vague and amorphous. It is, rather, an explicitly defined historical space, and a map is by far the most intuitive way to capture and display that. This isn’t a scholarly tool—it isn’t meant to be exhaustive. It’s meant to emphasize the ghetto as a space, not a topic, and in that spirit reVILNA allows users to quite literally explore.
And interesting stuff happens when you map things out. On Sept. 1, 1943, about three weeks before the ghetto was liquidated, there was a short-lived uprising in the ghetto, as the FPO (the United Partisan Organization) successfully fought off a German onslaught. While the historical accounts are detailed and exciting, it’s nonetheless almost impossible to follow what happened where without an understanding of the physical space. On the map, however, you can immediately see the FPO’s strategy: By entrenching themselves in opposing buildings at the entrance at Strazun Street, they choked off the only point of entry to their headquarters. Another aspect of the ghetto that’s revealed by the map is that there was, apparently, a religious neighborhood—the religious schools, kosher kitchen, yeshivas, and synagogues all operated in or around the same two courtyards.
But the most significant part of reVILNA is what you can’t see, the back-end technology. Any point, tour, image, or text can be updated or edited within minutes, even by someone with zero programming know-how; unlike a book or museum installation, the map is genuinely dynamic. The map will be freely available to any interested institution, who will be able to easily customize their version. And as each point represents longitude/latitude coordinates, the mobile version—currently in the final stages of development—will incorporate GPS: Visitors to the actual ghetto will, using their smartphone or tablet, be able to view nearby sites and buildings, read descriptions, and see images. And as a digital commemoration of the ghetto, reVILNA avoids the endless bureaucracy and red tape that is unfortunately characteristic of even the best-intentioned Lithuanian institutions.
Once the historical focus shifts from the murders to what came before, we begin to grant agency to the victims: They are no longer statistics, but people—heroes—who chose to live. Of the 75,000 Vilna Jews who died between 1941 and 1944, almost none were suicides. The story of the Vilna Ghetto is not only about the murder; it’s about survival, it’s about the unimaginable, immense achievement of persistence under the most horrific circumstances.
A perspective like this, though, messes up what’s usually thought of as a very one-dimensional and clean storyline. The morality of the ghetto all of a sudden gets a lot more complicated. Some of the Jewish policemen were violent toward Jews, and there were several instances of capital punishment. There were Jewish brothels, with Jewish prostitutes servicing Jewish men. The politics and infighting were tremendous. There were Jews who were informers. The hospital performed forced abortions (the Germans outlawed Jewish births in early 1942). Some Jews in the ghetto became very rich; some stole from others. And so on. This complexity might be unwelcome to those who maintain that the history of the ghetto is only about victimhood. But the reality is that the ghetto was a far more complex and interesting space, and reVILNA seeks to capture and reflect that. None of this dilutes the tragedy; it just chooses to acknowledge, commemorate, and even celebrate the achievements of the ghettos’ former inhabitants.
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