There are few place names on the planet that are associated with the heightened level of grotesque depravity as Auschwitz.
Carved out of the quiet Polish village of Oświęcim by Nazi invaders in 1939, Auschwitz was conceived as being a major implement of Heinrich Himmler’s system of forced labor through oppression, a concentration camp that would support the Nazi war effort and, with victory achieved, would serve as one of the greater cities in the Reich. Or so the Nazis believed.
History has recorded a different story, a deranged nightmare of starvation and mass execution. A history populated with gas chambers and crematoriums. A forced labor camp that became a center for extermination.
For the past six years, geographer Anne Knowles has lived with Auschwitz—not in the physical place, but with it, with its conception and its construction and the chaos and instability that belie the common perception of Nazi calculation and precision.
Knowles came to Auschwitz during a two-week workshop that she helped organize at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., a fortnight that brought together nine scholars from diverse disciplines—historical geography, geographic information science (GIS), cartography, history, and architectural history—“to consider how spatial analysis and geographical visualization of the built environment and forced movement of people during the Holocaust might inspire new research questions and pedagogical applications.”
From that workshop in 2007 came a grant from the National Science Foundation that funded six projects (pairing at least one historian with one geographer) that would examine the operational scale of the Holocaust; those six projects became six book chapters in the forthcoming Geographies of the Holocaust.
Though the Holocaust exists as one of the most profoundly devastating geographical events in human history, before these projects, few scholars had ever identified and investigated the spaces and geographical patterns of the genocide. No one had used GIS to do spatial analysis of these events, and, says Knowles, likely never would have if such a disparate group of academics hadn’t come together and forged a multi-faceted collaboration. “It was this frisson,” claims Knowles, “people coming together from different perspectives and different fields and then rubbing up against one another, that set off the sparks of discovery.”
This story presents some of the findings contained in a chapter titled “Visualizing the Archive: Building at Auschwitz as a Geographic Problem,” co-authored by Knowles; Paul Jaskot, an architectural historian at DePaul University; and Chester Harvey ’09 and Benjamin Perry Blackshear ’12.
Auschwitz, says Knowles, was supposed to become one of the greater cities in the Reich. A city was planned that would feature an entrance pavilion and a garden city. A grand headquarters for the commandant was drawn, as were estates for officers. In the idealized designs of architect Lothar Hartjenstein, Auschwitz was to become a “complex urban world supporting the control over a vast, greater Germany.”
But, Knowles says, these 1942 plans were displaced by more pragmatic demands in 1943. “What were built instead were more barracks to house many more guards, who were needed to control hundreds of thousands of prisoners scheduled to arrive from the Jewish ghetto in Budapest.”
Harvey and Blackshear used architectural drawings and plans and construction records to create the map at right. In green, you see structures that were included in the original plans for Auschwitz and subsequently built. In purple are the buildings that were not included in the original plan, but built out of necessity, including new guard barracks in the lower center of the map. And in orange are the areas planned by architect Lothar Hartjenstein, but never realized. In the upper left corner of the map are the plans for the commandant’s headquarters. Foundations were dug, but that is all. As the researchers note in their chapter, “the rationally planned total environment evident in the clarity of the SS’s ideal conceptualization of the complex in 1943 clashes with the messy reality of plans and buildings that were actualized in fits and starts over time.”
Or, as Knowles says, “The exigencies of war and genocide took over.”
With the erection of crematoria and the implementation of genocide, the SS entered a fevered stretch of drawing and redrawing plans that led to the construction of buildings that would “facilitate the day to day operation of the camp.” Perversely, this would include amenities intended to “entertain and distract” the guards charged with increasingly brutal and inhumane work.
The map below, reconstructed by Blackshear to indicate the dense variety of functions in one small part of the camp, shows the placement of two saunas on the east side of Auschwitz I, circa November 1943. Write the authors, “This cluster of different functions has remained invisible in the scholarship even though our color overlays make it clear that they were in fact extremely visible to the SS and inmates at the site.”
Chillingly, the saunas’ design echoed the decorative carpentry of central European tradition. That is, they were not only functional, but had an aesthetic, recreational purpose as well—all within sight of the death chambers.
A primary goal of the Auschwitz research was to use GIS to help understand the role sight played in the exercise of control at the camps. “We wanted to know what the guards could see and what impact that had on the prisoners,” Knowles says. “Were there places that were more dangerous than others? Were there places where people could escape notice?”
Knowles worked with Chester Harvey to use architectural plans, archival images, and aerial photographs to recreate the site and then render three-dimensional images of the camp. “We could place a hypothetical guard in any place in the camp and show what he could see most and least clearly,” Knowles says. Harvey generated the image bellow. The dash of white near the middle of the map indicates the approximate field of view for a person of average height standing in the center of that location.
“But that did not turn out to be the most interesting question—what could a guard see?” Knowles says. “See those buildings shaded red? Those are buildings that were under construction from May 1943 to May 1944. Paul Jaskot looked at this image and asked, rather casually, ‘Could we animate this?’”
Because Harvey had compiled a database of information that included when individual buildings were constructed and what they were used for, he was able to animate just how fluid this site was. “It’s a simple thing,” Knowles says, “but in the mind of an architecture historian, it created what we call in GIS circles ‘the eureka moment.’
“Paul said, ‘Oh my God, look at how chaotic this was—for eight months this was a construction site,’” Knowles recalls. “What the guards saw, changed constantly. The landscape was altered over and over and over. Think about the commotion of a construction site, and then add a swelling population of guards—and prisoners.”
Write the authors, “The scale of construction and its duration probably meant that much of the camp was visually confusing, quite a different environment than the regimented, rational, static image of the camp that has become so familiar to us.”
The Holocaust has always been an event rooted in time and place, Knowles says. “We’re trying to see what that looks like and then analyze the relationship between the two, place and time.”
Mapping, she says, “shows us what [the Nazis] built and did; it shows what their priorities were, rather than what they talked about. It sends a chill down the spine.”
Also, she adds, “In my mind, it highlights the absurdity of Nazi dreams.”