The vanishing map/the map of the vanishing: Ferrara’s Jewish deportees 1943-44.

The Stories:

I toyed around with various ideas, including one I’ll probably use for a final project on Lepanto 1571, but decided to make use of a very rich database available for download (or so I thought) through the Italian Fondazione Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea— 

The plan was to use their detailed historical information about the fate of the Ferrarese Jewish community during 1943 and 1944 to assess the frame of Giorgio Bassani’s Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini which brackets the story of that elite family with the terse account of their arrest and deportation to Auschwitz in in the fall of 1943.  As one of the first generation of works addressing the Shoah in Italy, Bassani’s novel established for many an influential historical-seeming narrative of Italian Jewish experience under Fascism and Nazi occupation.   In fact, “[t]he result [is] an incredible pastiche” as Bassani writes of the family tomb (trans. Weaver 1977, 12) and as he would have been the first to acknowledge. 

By mapping the details of the deportees born in Ferrara, specifically where they were captured and sent, I wanted to understand better the intersection of historical truth and fictional veracity in the work.  Does Bassani center that event in the city itself to emphasize further the hermetic, self-imposed myopia and hubris of the isolated characters who alternately attract and repel the novel’s protagonist, or does this detail function more as a small stone of historical reality placed on the fictional mausoleum that is the text?

The results surprised me (which is always a good sign).  Of the 67 deportees documented as having been born in Ferrara, 30 of them were captured in the city itself.  5 more were captured in luogo ignoto—place unknown—and the remaining 32 were arrested elsewhere.  So Bassani’s ending opts for one of two equally plausible fates, not simply shaping the one that will accord best with the novel’s argument, but choosing one that occurred in the majority of cases, given the implication of the data at large.  A powerful twin narrative of Ferrarese Jewish departure emerges from the (putative) map, whether for reasons of marriage, work, political exile, or in flight and hiding.  But, no single place seemed to be as perilous as Ferrara turned out to be: the greatest number of Ferrarese Jews rounded up outside of that city in this period happens in Milan (4).  The range and location of the other deportees I find frankly startling—2 in Bologna, Florence, Rome, but also in Selvetta di Viggiù (a place not even on the map as such); 3 in relatively unknown Monsummano Terme and Montefiorino, yet only 1 in Turin and 1 in Verona.  The data is hugely suggestive to me: does this say something about those who left, as Bassani’s novel may imply?  Or were other places simply safer, especially per capita (hard to believe given the numbers deported from Rome for instance)? Or again does this merely show a stark historical version of the appointment at Samarra, where the place and the choice makes little difference in aggregate, whether it be an obscure hamlet in Piedmont (Succinto Canavese), or a venerable university center (Padova), or one’s beloved hometown?

The Map:

I found the process of collecting and analyzing the data extremely exciting and fulfilling, in particular the tasks of getting the coordinates and seeing the possible arguments that the map might be making in response to my questions. 

The attempt to make the digital map, however, was frustrating and humbling beyond belief.  First, my OS was too old to use on my regular laptop and I didn’t want to risk disrupting my current research and teaching by updating it (i.e. so many open browser tabs!), thus I borrowed my daughter’s newer computer, as she has her school-issued one at home right now.  I opted for Tableau as the only program that had been recommended for beginners, but found its instructional manuals and sample databases–with their focus on hypothetical rising and falling sales of office equipment in the northern vs southern hemisphere–alienating and depressing.  At every turn I was reminded, a) I’m so analog and b) AI tools serve global capitalism and are ill-suited for the kind of research and data viz I want to do. 

Nevertheless, I got Tableau installed and proceeded to download the dataset from only to find that I had no app to open it, nor could I find one (still can’t).  Oh, well, it was only 30+ data points, so I put them into a pdf in 4 columns.  Tableau could make a table from the data but it seemed frozen and I couldn’t manipulate it.  Ok, let’s try a spreadsheet: much better, now how do I get a map?  Blend datasets: I got it.  Sort of.  But the map doesn’t come up.  It’s two in the morning so I can’t ask anyone but, hey Bri is writing about entering in coordinates—wow that’s so useful, thank you Bri!  Now it seems to be working . . . .  Ok—the end is in sight: I’m going to get my coordinates on the map, hope that the measure function shows enough difference between 1 and 4 (the extreme of 32 is wayyyyy over to the right of the chart but should show up nicely on a symbol map).  Tomorrow I can play with color and intensity the way I’ve been planning!  Woohoo

Good morning. My daughter has spilt tea on her school laptop at breakfast and it has died (see b above—may go into selling office furniture to cover the cost.).  She absolutely needs hers back for her High School zoom day: I can have it again when she’s finished her chemistry homework.  Still waiting.

As I finish writing this blog, a GIS/mapping co-working session announcement has come in: Reader, I’ve signed up . . . .  Now looking for jobs in sales.

Coda: returning to Tableau, I found that I had a bit more distance and was less afraid to click on small icons I hadn’t noticed before.  By shifting from string to number and location (city) and, finally somehow changing the default to Italy not U.S.A., I was able to get the data to load as a map automatically: turns out I didn’t need to enter latitude and longitude by hand into Excel.  Whereas before I had a single satellite image with Milan, Texas, registered, I now had the data scaled to an adjustable regional map of Northern Italy.  There were still a lot of fiddly details to manipulate: color contrast, typeface, and crucially making the data not too small or large so as to be distinguishable.  And I wish I would have had the time and skill to layer it further with places of detention and ultimate destinations in Nazi concentration camps of the 67 Ferraresi; but—it’s a map!

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