By Rochelle Maruch Miller
Menachem Kaiser is the creator of the recently launched reVilna app, a digital interactive map of the Vilna Ghetto. The talented 28-year-old Brooklyn resident was a Fulbright Fellow to Lithuania in Creative Writing when he learned that he was actually living on the border of the second ghetto in Vilna. He would never have been aware of this, however, as there is no signage left after the destruction of the ghetto, and the history seemed to have virtually disappeared from the area.
“Despite (or maybe because of) the ghetto’s centrality, virtually no trace of them remains,” says Menachem Kaiser. “It is as if they have been effaced, scrubbed from history. Aside from a handful of token plaques (most of which are in Yiddish, the language of almost no one who visits and of almost everybody who was killed) and two or three hard-to-find, barely relevant statues, there is no physical commemoration at the sites. Locals generally have no idea where the ghettos were or even that there were ghettos at all.”
This inspired Menachem to create reVilna, a just-launched mapping project of the Vilna Ghetto; a virtual reclamation of the space. Using filters and a search function, visitors to the site can explore the ghetto on their own or follow built-in storylines, similar to virtual tours, which are either chronological or topical in nature and include resistance, health, education, government, art, culture, and more. There are over 200 points, all painstakingly organized with meticulous attention to every detail, paired with more than 150 photographs culled from archives the world over.
ReVilna, which Menachem has worked on for the past year and a half, and which counts among its partners YIVO in New York, the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum in Israel, and the Vilna Gaon State Museum in Lithuania, represents an enormous amount of research and development. Researchers went through memoirs, histories, archives, documents, and the like, geographically tagging any significant site or event—where a school was, for example, or the hospital, or the brief uprising in the ghetto. Each point was then translated to coordinates of longitude and latitude. A similar process was gone through with photographs. The information was entered into a database, and with the help of Axis Maps, a leading digital cartography company, Menachem designed and implemented a dynamic mapping platform.
The greatest challenge he faced in bringing reVilna to fruition was that of organization. “Once all the information is collected, it has to be organized, categorized. We set out to build narratives, these kinds of “tours” that people could follow. But it wasn’t straightforward at all how these things should be organized. A lot of this was a design challenge as well—with so many places in such a tiny space, how do you make sure the user isn’t overwhelmed? Another major problem I didn’t foresee was the map’s limitation in terms of showing the user persons of interest. Maps are very good if you’ve got a fixed point. But they’re very bad with everything else. I had a lot of home addresses, but nowhere near all, and besides, that’s not useful or interesting information. I had originally planned to have three categories: Places, Events, and People. But I dropped the last one.”
Why a map though? “Because a map directly addresses the very special historical nature of the Vilna Ghetto, which is both spatially and temporally bound—that is, its physical boundaries were literal fences, and it did not exist in any manner before September 6, 1941, or after September 23, 1943,” Menachem explains. “The Ghetto is not like a neighborhood which comes into being or changes character or changes only gradually; and it is not akin to a movement or period, which are always historically vague and amorphous. It is, rather, an explicitly defined historical space, and a map is by far the most intuitive way to capture and display that. This isn’t a scholarly tool—it isn’t meant to be exhaustive. It’s meant to emphasize the ghetto as a space, not a topic, and in that spirit reVilna allows users to quite literally explore.”
Unique in concept, reVilna is easy to maintain and edit. Much of the work Menachem did was “on the backend—making sure that even someone with zero programming know-how would be able to change/update/edit the map.”
“So, for example, a museum in Israel could have their own version, and change it as they see fit,” Menachem explains. “More pictures, different tours, more emphasis on certain places/events, etc.”
“In the USA, Israel, and other countries, people really took to the idea of a well-designed, easy to use resource,” Menachem says. “And it spoke to the idea of Holocaust space, in a way not often done. Very few people, even those extremely knowledgeable of Holocaust history, have a concept of space, of geography. So people may or may not have known about schools in the ghetto. But on the map, you could see half a dozen schools in this very small area, and you get a somewhat better sense of how this place might have functioned. In Lithuania, it was for many, the first time they had been exposed to this history.”
Creating and bringing reVilna to fruition has given Menachem “a huge appreciation for Holocaust history.” Although his grandparents were survivors and he attended Jewish schools, “so Holocaust was a big part of my education, identity, etc. . . . I still didn’t know anything.” Delving into the history of this defined space showed him how complicated, how interesting, and how textured the history is.
He adds, “I think a lot of people understand a ghetto as a place where Jews were rounded up and eventually murdered. It’s really so much more than that.”
ReVilna has mobile/GPS capabilities, making it ideal for guides to use with their groups. Menachem hopes the app will be used in various museum installations within the next year.
Currently, Menachem Kaiser is writing a book about the Vilna ghetto. This fall, he will be attending graduate school, where he will be working towards an MFA in fiction writing, and he hopes to work on a novel, not ghetto-related (though perhaps shtetl-related).
Menachem recently participated in Asylum Arts: International Jewish Artists Retreat in Garrison, New York, which brought together 70 talented young Jewish artists from across the globe.
Asylum Artists was created as part of Schusterman Connection Points, an initiative launched by the Schusterman Philanthropic Network, a global enterprise that supports and creates innovative initiatives for the purpose of igniting the passion and unleashing the power in young people to create positive change in Jewish communities and beyond. v