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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

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(Photoilustration Tablet Magazine; original photo J. Henning Buchholz/Shutterstock.com)
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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.

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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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Terri Zuckerman says:

Fascinating. Will reVilna ever be available for individuals. And, are there plans to continue the project with other Ghettos?

whatnot says:

I’m not good at praise, so I’ll diss. The website is full of duplicate images which get different captions depending on which ‘stories’ they’re put to illustrate; some images don’t make sense at all; some captions, well, this was so far my favourite, so I’ll quote in full:

‘Some sullenly indiscriminate far in much thanks resold so crud with said rakish ape oh jeepers jeez this dismally flat effusive sure inside in the diplomatically darn far that cuckoo less less hound less gosh underneath merciful audibly gosh seagull cracked quietly since so rat hugged far.’

so much for ‘painstaking’.

Anita Brest Platt says:

Do you know if anyone has written either a nonfiction or fictionalized account of life in the Vilna ghetto? My father’s family were among the victims, so it would be nice to know more about the life they lived.

Robert Levt says:

Why did you say that the ghetto “was liquidated?” Did you mean that the inhabitants were rounded up and transferred to death camps or murdered on the spot over a short amount of time? If the goal of the app is clarity, why not be clear. Liquidated washes out true remembrance.

Michael Stein says:

That’s what liquidated means.

whatnot says:

if I were clueless about the subject matter, I would assume that both ghettos were liquidated on dates stated in the article, and as the author goes on to elaborate that –

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.

- I would also assume that’s when they were scrubbed, effaced or what not, which would be inaccurate, since majority of clearance in Vilnius old town was carried out by the Soviets long after the war ended.

the whole project screams ‘amateur’, despite all the noble intentions and prestigious backers.

menachem says:

Yep, there are plans to continue the project with other Ghettos. reVILNA is a completely open project — anyone can browse the map on their computers or mobile devices.

menachem says:

The best book in English is the one mentioned in the article, Herman Kruk’s Last Days of Jerusalem of Lithuania.

Terri Zuckerman says:

Thanks! Have been working my way through and have forwarded to the Breman Jewish Museum here in Atlanta. I’m a docent in the Holocaust Gallery.

Anita Brest Platt says:

Thank you, I’ll try to get a copy.

N. Mara Czarnecki says:

For some of us, it provides somewhere to start looking for answers.

WynstonSmith says:

What does “liquidated” mean?

natsera says:

My father’s maternal side lived in a village near Kovno, now known as Kaunas, and they were rounded up and murdered in that ghetto. I hope that will be one of your projects.

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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

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