A fascinating, and quite moving, online exhibit allows you to “visit” pre-war cities, towns, and shtetls in half a dozen countries through maps of them drawn from memory after the Shoah. Called “Atlas of Memory Maps,” the exhibit is mounted by the Grodzka Gate NN Theatre Center in Lublin and is drawn from maps and other materials in its collection that were displayed in an on-site exhibition last year.
Grodzka Gate is a cultural association founded in Lublin in the early 1990s dedicated to researching and recovering historic memory, particularly that of the Jews in Lublin and its surroundings.
The online exhibit
is an exhibition of maps and plans created by former inhabitants of cities and towns in Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, Moldova and Slovakia (Jews and non-Jews), who in this way tried to save from oblivion the shape and character of their towns – destroyed or radically changed as a result of World War II and post-war changes. The exhibition shows the diversity of these maps, but also tries to capture their spirit and feelings that accompanied their creation.
The exhibit features a clickable gallery of dozens of maps, depicting good-sized cities such a Lublin, and also tiny villages.
It also links to extensive resources about them. Most of this material is in Polish (google translate works fairly well) — but there is also an insightful essay in English by Piotr Nazaruk, who curated the exhibit along with Agnieszka Wiśniewska.
Most of the maps displayed in the exhibition, he writes, were published as part of Yizkor books, memorial books documenting the history of Jewish communities destroyed in the Holocaust that were created, edited and often privately published by survivors.
In effect, he writes:
the (often anonymous) authors of these mental maps created astonishing maps of destroyed communities that do not follow the rules of modern cartography, but are emotion-laden testimonies of a lost world.
Another key source were interviews with people from Lublin collected since 1998 as part of Grodzka Gate’s oral history project.
Nazaruk described five key features of memory maps as a whole:
1. Stubbornness of their authors in uncovering all the details of their former homes’ topographies (buildings, house numbers, names of their owners and residents, street names–official and common Yiddish names), and stubbornness in reminding us about the Jewish past (forgotten or actively suppressed) of the depicted places.
2. Uniqueness–these maps are unique because they reflect their author’s one of a kind personality, memories, mentality, perspective, etc.
3. Timelessness–often they show towns and cities in their pre-war, wartime and post-war states at the same time. Due to this remarkable mixture of time, the layers depicted are therefore, in a way, alive and dead in the maps at the same time.
4. Opacity–although it is possible to use these maps to navigate through the mapped places, to do so one has to reject the familiar logic of cartography and its principles, like the four cardinal directions or the precise rendering of space and distance. Additionally, their captions are hermetic and opaque due to the fact that their authors use and/or mix many different languages–Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, Russian and others–and therefore the reader’s language skills determine his or her understanding of the text elements in these maps. And, finally,
5. Tenderness–these maps were created out of the emotions and intimate feelings of their authors, and since emotions are their building blocks, they should be considered the main key to their understanding. Mental maps inform less about space, and more about its perception through the emotions of their authors.
NOTE: Organizers of the exhibit encourage visitors to make their own mental map and send it with a brief description to: firstname.lastname@example.org