When World War II began, there were close to 200,000 Jewish residents of Lodz, Poland, about one-third of the population, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).
Lodz was “the second largest Jewish community in Poland, and one of the largest in the world,” according to the USHMM. “Within a few months of the Nazi invasion, the Germans established a ghetto in the northeastern section of Lodz and all of the city’s Jews were forced to move there.”
Jewish residents unable to flee the Nazi occupation were concentrated in the Lodz ghetto and used as forced factory labor, mostly for textile production, and made to live in barbaric conditions — many with no running water or sewer system and little food.
Jews and Roma were deported from other countries into the ghetto and then the Nazis began transporting Jews from the ghetto to killing centers, such as in Chelmno, Poland. In August 1944, the Nazis “deported the surviving ghetto residents to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center.”
Today in Lodz, only a few hundred Jews remain, according to the Jewish Virtual Library.
“Liquidation,” an art installation by 2017 Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) graduates Sarah Maravetz and Gillian McCallion pays tribute to and recognizes the history of the Lodz thousands who died or were murdered. The striking LED lighting installation is on display at the USHMM through the end of July.
In the middle of MICA’s Master of Professional Studies in Information Visualization (now Information and Data Visualization), and through a connection with the USHMM, Maravetz and McCallion were invited to propose an exhibit based on data sets about Lodz ghetto workers and students. In June of 2017 the two spent four days at the museum refining their design and making a prototype.
“A key part of information visualization is storytelling; humanizing data so that it’s understood by a broader audience. In the process of exploring the data that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum made available and researching the history of Lodz, it became apparent that part of the story we were trying to tell was about the absence of data,” Maravetz said. “We can learn what happened to many of the people on the list of workers and students, but many more peoples’ stories were unknown, and we wanted to memorialize them. The absence of data became part of the story.”
“The dataset we received from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum team was the most challenging I have ever worked with, not because of what it included but because of what was missing. I really struggled with how to visualize a dataset with so many gaps in it,” she said. “But eventually I realized that the gaps, in many ways, were the data. We just simply don’t know what happened to most of the people who passed through the Lodz ghetto. That changed the way I thought about presenting the data.”
Maravetz and McCallion researched light installations and Holocaust memorials and used that research to inform their designs. And while they originally created separate visualizations, they eventually were drawn to the same narrative, McCallion said.
“We wanted to explore ways of communicating not just the data, but our own personal reactions to the data,” McCallion said. “Our collaboration allowed us to create a piece that we believe is more powerful than either of us would have produced individually.”
“And then the idea of using lights, we had both come up with these designs that memorialized people who were no longer there,” Maravetz said. “And light has been a traditional medium for memorials for many years, and was something that resonated with us.”
“Liquidation,” employs acrylic tubing lit with LED lights in a design that McCallion said isn’t “just about presenting the data — our goal was to communicate the magnitude of the horrors and also, to some extent, to memorialize the individuals who were murdered.”
“[There is] a map of Lodz at the top. Each level of the strips of lights represents a month, so the levels go out as the months tick by and the population declines,” McCallion said. “By the end, only the tips of a few of the strips are lit. The sequence lasts 2.5 minutes and then starts over. There’s a projection on the floor that shows the years and months that moves also and there are ripples on the floor like splashes in a pond each month to represent people passing.”
The two hope that the installation will prompt museum visitors to pause and contemplate the gravity of the losses of the Holocaust and specifically the losses of the tens of thousands of people who disappeared from Lodz, who starved to death, who were deported and murdered.
“It can sound a bit trite to say that data tells a story, but in this case, this was clearly much more than numbers on a spreadsheet. Each mark on that spreadsheet indicated a life. Each empty cell represented a parent, sibling, child,” McCallion said. “It is incredibly humbling to consider data in such terms and the responsibility of visualizing it is daunting. The horrors of what happened in the Lodz ghetto will stay with me, as they should, but the resilience and character of the residents is inspiring and that’s what remains.”
Maravetz called the project “an emotional experience.”
“You want to handle that information and the tragedy of this with respect and gravity. But at the same time, we were trying to look for maybe a different way of representing information. And we’re hoping that our piece is a little space in the museum to pause and reflect and to watch. There’s a sequence to the lights that kind of cycles through,” Maravetz said. “We’re hoping that in the course of the museum that people are able to take some time out and sit with it for a little while, and reflect.”
The “Liquidation” light installation runs through July 31 at the Wexner Center in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place SW, Washington, D.C.
For more information about the USHMM, visit ushmm.org and mica.edu/graduate-programs/information-and-data-visualization-mps.