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
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.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
The quest to rediscover the mysterious pianist Ignace Tiegerman led through Cairo, Italy, and the ghost of Bruno Schulz