Places of Experience in Survivor Testimonies

Authors: Dan Miller*, Columbia University, Anika Walke, Washington University in St. Louis, Levi Westerveld, GRID-Arendal
Topics: Historical Geography, Quantitative Methods, Europe
Keywords: space and place, oral history, textual analysis, Holocaust
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/9/2021
Start / End Time: 9:35 AM / 10:50 AM
Room: Virtual 16
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Through the lenses of language and memory, this paper seeks to develop insight into what places meant to victims of the Holocaust and to better understand how space and place factor into the recounting and structuring of Holocaust experiences. We carried out close readings and textual analyses on a collection of survivor interviews to pursue the core methodological question of how to identify and analyze place in Holocaust testimony. Our interest in places of experience extends from previous work in the Holocaust Geographies project and acknowledges that many important experiences relayed in oral histories are situated within unknown, often very small, typically unlocatable places that cannot be specified with geographic coordinates. Our work is motivated by the capacity of computational, textual analysis and corpus linguistics to draw out such places from hundreds of interviews and regard them collectively at varying scales and scopes. This paper explains how we developed a general method based on identifying all manner of place terms and spatial relationships in a subset of sample transcripts. We will discuss the challenges we encountered while developing this method and preparing a large corpus of Holocaust survivor interviews for textual analysis. We will also briefly demonstrate modes of exploratory visualization that have revealed other dimensions of survivor interviews. The conclusion will suggest how our approach can be applied more broadly to oral histories beyond Holocaust research.

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