Digital “ATLAS of the HOLOCAUST LITERATURE”: topography of experience, experience of topography in Jewish Ghettos

by Kajetan Mojsak

1. Introduction

“The Atlas of the Holocaust Literature – Warszawa/Łódź” is one of the scholarly digital collections on the New Panorama of Polish Literature platform, created and developed in the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw by the team of New Panorama of Polish Literature, the Research Group for Holocaust Literature under direction of professor Jacek Leociak and the scholars from the Center of Jewish Research at the University of Łódź. The project fuses such tasks as digitalization, documentary work, popularisation of knowledge about the history of the ghetto, Holocaust studies, as well as urban studies.

The aim of the project is to popularise knowledge about the history of the two largest ghettos organised by Nazi Germany on the territory of occupied Poland, taking into account the spatio-temporal dynamics of the events. The visual-textual material, conveying the knowledge based on in-depth research, is being  published in an open-access, with the use of the possibilities  team of combining several narrative forms (texts, graphics, maps, photos) that were developed by the team of New Panorama of Polish Literature. The Atlas of Holocaust Literature is then an elaborate digital compendium, providing a publicly accessible source of information about an extremely important part of the Jewish history, as well as the history of two cities, bringing the details of the topographical experience of life in the ghettos. It also proposes methodological tools for future research. 

The project is a significantly expanded continuation of a collection built on the basis of seventeen testimonies from the Warsaw ghetto, and carried out as a pilot project in 2019, financed by the Culture Bureau of the City of Warsaw. In the new phase of work on the project – started in October 2022 and planned for five years (and funded by the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education) – the Atlas is being developed in few directions. It will include further (circa 50) texts that should bring, at a rough estimate, some 9000 new entries (text fragments), as well as some 3000 maps. We’re going to add more material from the Warsaw ghetto, but also from the ghetto in the city of Łódź (Litzmannstadt). What’s more, we’ll have all the text material translated into English. Another important aspect of expansion of our project will be the inclusion of the literary/ fictional texts – which will most probably bring new challenges.

2. Textual sources and methodology

Digital Atlas is a continuation of enormous research done by Jacek Leociak and Barbara Engelking, presented, most of all, in their comprehensive, encyclopaedic work The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City.

The primary methodological inspiration for the Atlas is the spatial turn in contemporary humanities, geo-poetics and the new cultural geography. The project aims to map, describe and interpret the topography of the Holocaust experience in the spatial reality of the Warsaw and Lodz ghettos during the phase of intermediate extermination. Its principle is to use the digital possibilities to narrate the story through the prism of topography, using the form of interactive digital maps. The exact moment of creation of the most of analysed records (the stage of the Holocaust) and the space (author’s whereabouts) are interconnected and co-create a specific “space-time” of the texts, the topographic and chronological grid, which determines the type of experience, conditions the very creation of a text and survival of both text and its author. 

Another crucial category of the project is that of experience. The course of general historical events – from the outbreak of World War II until the liberation of both cities – is described in the “Events” section, which provides the user with the necessary background. But it is the everyday experience that is the point of focus: experience of the ghetto as an oppressive, degrading and enslaving space, recorded in the testimonies of residents and observers of the closed-off districts. Topography – as a key category of description – is understood here literally: as the spatial layout of a particular area, the location of objects and landmarks and their relationship to the observer/participant of events; but also as a way of expressing the experience precisely in spatial terms. A grid of ‘space-person-time’ connections and series of interactive maps makes it possible to investigate the “topography of experience” on the one hand and the “experience of topography” on the other.

The diversity of the written records gives testimony to the complexity of individual experiences – lived in extreme circumstances, but at the same time in their everyday dimension. Personal documents capture the everyday detail, the moment, the atmosphere of experience; but this individual level is inextricably intertwined with the broader social and institutional context, so that in effect they serve also as a detailed account of various supra-individual aspects of ghetto life in its organisational, economic, health, cultural, spiritual dimensions. They depict the daily routines around the provision of food and other necessities, thus illustrating phenomena such as ration cards, smuggling and black market, street trade, the communication system both inside the ghettos and between ghettos and the outside world. (see: Engelking and Leociak, 2009, p. 12). What also emerges is the day-to-day functioning of institutions such as the Jewish Council, the Order Service, the collaborationist “Thirteen”; health and medical services, the post office.

The pilot project (which included only Warsaw ghetto) was based solely on the diaries and notes written hic et nunc, in the midst of the events. Documents written in retrospect, from the perspective of time were consciously excluded. As Jacek Leociak writes, there is a fundamental opposition between those two types of documents, tooted in extra-textual reality, which nonetheless “clearly exerts an influence on the structure of the text itself” and “the communication roles that can be reconstructed: that of “reporting witness” […] and the “remembering survivor” […]. Two types of experience of being beset, of being thrown into a situation of all-pervasive horror, of being doomed, and the experience of survival, which brings “external” security, but leaves an internalised horror – the wound of remembrance”  (Leociak 2008, p. 49). The planned inclusion of this later type of documents will undoubtedly broaden the scope of the project and shed some light on such issues as the mechanisms of memory, changing criteria of reference, influence of later knowledge and collective memory on the personal recollections (see: Leociak, 2008, p. 49) and how they play out in the dimension of space. 

Narrative prose – saturated with fiction, although usually based on personal experience (literary works by Adolf Rudnicki or Bogdan Wojdowski) – represent another important group of texts to be included. This type of text will bring yet another type of representation of space, based on memory and knowledge gained post-factum, (re)created according to the rules of literary work. 

3. Structure of the collection

The text material was organised according to 3 factors: time, person and space. In effect our collection is built of maps and 3 interlinked modules: EVENTS (PERIODS), PERSONS and PLACES

Obviously, the user can look through the Atlas using the ‘search’ function. Nevertheless, links allow to navigate between the respective modules:

– we can move from each Person’s entry to the specific sites described by the author (and back),

– there are links from the entry of the street to the more detailed addresses on this street,

– from each Place entry we can go to the biographical note of the author (Person module) or to the events section.

The module of Events consists of short descriptions of each of the periods and sub-periods of ghetto history (six in Warsaw and eight in the case of the city of Łódź).

In case of Warsaw these 6 main periods are:

I. Between the outbreak of World War II and the closing of the ghetto (1.09.1939 – 16.11.1940)

II. Between closing of the ghetto and Grossaktion Warschau (16.11.1940 – 22.07.1942) (with five 5 sub-periods discerned) 

III. “Grossaktion Warschau” (22.07.1942 – 21.09.1942)  (divided into 3 sub-periods)

IV. Between Grossaktion & the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (21.09.1942 – 19.04.1943) (2 sub-periods)

V. Ghetto Uprising (19.04.1943 – 12.05.1943)

VI. Between the suppression of the uprising and the liberation of Warsaw (12.05.1943 – 17.01.1945) (2 sub-periods).

For the city of Łódź, the chronology of historical events is as follows:

I. Between the outbreak of World War II and the closing of the ghetto (1.09.1939 – 30.04.1940) (3 sub-periods)

II. From the closing of the ghetto to the first displacements (30.04.1940 -5.01.1942) (3 sub-periods)

III. Ghetto during the displacements (5.01.1942-1.09.1942) (2 sub-periods)

IV. “Szpera” (from German Allgemeine Gehsperre  – the deportation of about 15,000 children, the elderly, the sick and the unemployed from the Łódź ghetto to the extermination camp in Chełmno nad Nerem)  (1-12.09.1942)

V. Between the end of displacements to the liquidating action (12.09.1942-23.06.1944) (2 sub-periods)

VI. Liquidation of the ghetto (23.06-29.08.1944) (2 sub-periods)

VII. Between the liquidation of the ghetto and the liberation of Łódź (29.08.1944-19.01.1945)

VIII. After the liberation 

Secondly, we have the module “People”. Each author – witness of the events – has a separate short article dedicated to her or him, which consists of an interactive map illustrating his “spatial activity”, biographical note, bibliographical reference, as well as a list of links to every place (street, address or route) which appeared in his/her testimony. Among about twenty authors included in the project so far there are people such as Władysław Szpilman – famous composer and pianist; Perec Opoczyński – a poet and a journalist; Ludwik Hirszfeld – a medical scientist, microbiologist and serologist, scientific head of the State Hygiene Institute in Warsaw. Most of them were public figures, representatives of Jewish intelligentsia, merchants and factory owners, medical scientists, social activists, and as such they played important roles in both Jewish and non-Jewish communities. They were often burdened with decisions that influenced not only their own or their families lives, but had much broader repercussions. This is especially the case of Adam Czerniaków – an engineer, senator, educational and social activist, and the head of Warsaw Jewish Council (Judenrat), responsible for implementation of German orders until his suicidal death 23 July 1942 – only gradually gaining the consciousness of the Nazis’ extermination plan and his own role in it. Same can be said about Mark Edelman – a social activist and cardiologist, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, or Janusz Korczak, an educator and pedagogue; a principal of an orphanage in Warsaw, who stayed with his orphans when the entire population of the institution was sent to the Treblinka extermination camp in 1942. 

Among the testimonies from the Łódź Ghetto that we plan to include are texts by such authors as teenage girl Rywka Lipszyc; doctor of chemistry Jakub Poznański; Oskar Rosenfeld – chronicler, journalist and Zionist activist; Oskar Singer – Austrian writer and journalist, doctor of law, archivist, chief editor of the The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto; or Abraham Icchak Łaski – author of an unusual diary, written in four languages in the margins of the French novel Les Vrais Riches by François Coppée.

This selection of material will reveal the diversity of perspectives and experiences of everyday life in the ghettos; it can also serve as a basis for a comparative study of similarities and differences between the life in the two ghettos and its spatial, topographic characteristics.

Finally, a third module, that of “Place”: a crucial one in the Atlas.

Here we have about 2000 entries so far (from the first phase of our project). Each place entry consists of the headline (more or less specific address), a map and all the text fragments related to this specific place, which are ordered firstly – by the names of authors, and secondly – by chronological order. There are also links to the authors’ biographical notes; as well as to the descriptions of the corresponding Event (numbered I, II A, VI, etc.). 

Each fragment has also annotation “Ja” or “Oni” (“I” or “THEY”), where I stands for the fragment that relates the events in which the author is involved personally and THEY means that she/he is a witness/observer of certain events or has second-hand information about them.

Figure 1: Example of a Place entry in the Atlas of the Holocaust Literature: a view of the addresses and places on Franciszkańska street 

There are several challenges we have to answer in our work. During the query, researchers must accurately choose and delineate fragments of text so that each passage we publish (whether a single sentence or several paragraphs long) contains enough topographical information and context, to serve as a distinct logical unit. Secondly, the most important task on the side of researchers is to determine and localise places that are not specified or mentioned explicitly, but can be deduced from the context. Our aim is to incorporate each single place found in the textual material, but, of course, these „places” will vary in scope and can be defined to varying degrees. 

In effect, among place entries we can discern few different groups:

A) general STREET names, such as e.g. Leszno, Gęsia, Karmelicka, Nalewki, etc.;

B) exact ADDRESSES (which are grouped under the banner of the given street);

C) AREAS: places such open markets, squares, blocks of houses, manufactures, areas separated and outlined by the Nazis;

D) ROUTES are the descriptions of translocations of any kind (be it daily route to and from work etc., forced dislocation or transport or the route to the hideout): in these cases the headline lists all the places (streets names, addresses, orientation points) on the route, which could be deduced from author’s description.

Obviously, some streets and areas – as more important in authors’ experiences – had a lot more source material than others. This exactly is one of the already visible outcomes of our work: it helps to determine which places were the scene of daily routines and the most important events, which sites guaranteed (temporary) safety (e.g. serving as hiding places) and which involved extreme danger. The exact location in space-and-time was, as mentioned earlier, the matter of the utmost importance.

The space itself is another object of our research: the excerpts from the texts illustrate, above all, daily life of people trapped in ghetto, but they also bear witness to the life and death of the city, rapid and destructive changes of the urban fabric: from the separation of the ghetto area, to the construction of the wall, changes in ghetto’s boundaries, exclusion of individual blocks of houses and streets, up to its complete destruction.

The study of the ghetto topography must also include such “spatial objects” as for example “shops” (workshops or manufactures in which ghetto inhabitants were used as forced labour); the isolated fragments of the “residual ghetto” (intended to accommodate the remaining Jews in Warsaw) and the so-called wild (uninhabited) areas, but also places such as basements, roofs and attics, which often served as escape routes or hiding places.

The source of the fascinating, though difficult issues that constitute one of the major parts of the work involved, is the fact that Warsaw as it is today, and the ghetto area in particular, differs enormously from its pre-war and occupation-era state. It is then a palimpsest-city: its spatial matrix and the street grid has been almost completely transformed. This, incidentally, is one of the reasons why we don’t use GIS for the purpose of our project and have to rely on meticulous work of researchers in collaboration with cartographers to create detailed maps of the city from the period under study. 

This aspect of our project – the history of the urban space – will be complemented by yet another medium – short films providing a biography of the one selected street from Warsaw and one from Łódź. 

4. Conclusion

“The Atlas” is a time-consuming, organisationally complex project involving Holocaust researchers: literary scholars, historians, cultural scholars, digital humanists, a graphic designer, cartographers. Obviously, such a multifaceted form of presentation of the material would be very difficult to achieve with a traditional medium. The digital form not only allows the use of the network of links and active maps, but also enables further enhancement and development of the project, without volume limitation. Available in open access, “The Atlas of the Holocaust Literature” will be useful for both researchers of the Holocaust and all interested non-academic readers. It can serve  future scholars as a source of structured data, a basis for further research into the history and topography of the two ghettos, individual and communal experience of the Holocaust, or a personal experience of space.


Engelking B, and Leociak, J, 2009, The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City, ‎ transl. by Emma Harriss, Yale University Press, New Haven.

Leociak, J, 2008, ‘Literature of the personal document as a source in Holocaust research’, transl. by J. Giebułtowski. Holocaust, vol. 1 pp. 31–52. 

About the Author

Kajetan Mojsak is an assistant professor at the Institute of Literary Research, Polish Academy of Sciences, and a member of the New Panorama of Polish Literature team, responsible for creating and operating NPLP.PL, a platform publishing digital scholarly collections, and TEI.NPLP.PL, a platform for scholarly digital editions. His main research interests are XXth century prose, anthropology of literature, critical analysis of discourse, studies on People’s Republic of Poland and communism, relationship between literature and censorship in PRL, relations between aesthetics and ideology.