Digital tools help Holocaust researchers unearth meaning from a vast array of records and present findings visually. Photo illustration: Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. —Photo courtesy of American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee

New Connections to Holocaust History

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Memory & Action
Published in
6 min readNov 18, 2019


Higher education is increasingly digital, hands-on, and interconnected. At a time when interest in the humanities is declining, the Museum is seizing on technological innovation as one way to ensure the relevance of Holocaust studies and attract young scholars, all while bolstering the visibility of those currently researching, writing, and teaching in the field.

Mapping History: Museum Fellows Use Digital Tools to Study Vast Holocaust Archives

Historian Michal Frankl had a problem: He wanted to map the paths taken by refugees fleeing the Holocaust, but the information was buried in 50 linear feet of documents — 1,850 folders in more than 100 boxes covering a 30-year span. The volume of records to sort through was overwhelming.

Josh Zampetti, who recently completed his digital humanities associate fellowship at the Museum, worked on several projects and demonstrated mapping techniques to Holocaust teachers at this year’s Silberman Seminar for University Faculty, funded by the Curt C. and Elsa Silberman Foundation.

Josh Zampetti, the Museum’s associate fellow in the new practice of digital humanities, stepped in. Using technology to find records mentioning the names of specific refugee assistance organizations, he was able to significantly narrow the pool of documents for Frankl (a researcher at the Czech Academy of Sciences who also spent time at the Museum, as the Margit Meissner Fellow for the Study of the Holocaust in Czech Lands in 2015–16).

That’s one example of digital humanities — applying digital tools to research. The Museum and other institutions have digitized millions of documents, but with materials in multiple languages and formats, how can scholars make sense of the data or even find what they’re looking for?

By adopting new technologies that make it easier to search its collections, the Museum hopes to engage more scholars in Holocaust studies and enable all researchers — from those just beginning their careers to the most senior in their fields — to make new discoveries and deepen the understanding of this history.

“The digital humanities associate fellowship helps Museum staff better imagine new ways to research, understand, and tell the story of the Holocaust,” said Michael Haley Goldman, the Museum’s future projects director. “The fellows bring skills to a project that are generally unavailable — and often unimaginable — to our historians, researchers, and educators.”

To make the most of these new tools, with many advances just in the last several years, the Museum created the digital humanities associate fellowship to lead the way in attracting and supporting cutting-edge scholarship. The fellowship was a joint creation of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies and the William Levine Family Institute for Holocaust Education.

“We want to be in the forefront, we don’t want to be just following,” said Robert M. Ehrenreich, director of the Mandel Center’s National Academic Programs. “Digital humanities is not a field unto itself but is another tool in the disciplines within humanities that’s helping us connect practitioners with specialists in interesting ways.”

Zampetti, who is certified in web development and pursuing his master’s degree in public history from American University, says his primary interest is in historical research. But he began adding digital tools to his skill set because of the high demand for them, especially as more humanities scholars have embraced an integrated approach. “A support system like this fellowship allows you to explore digital methodologies in new ways and that’s how you start creating more digital humanists,” he said.

One of Zampetti’s other projects was creating a data visualization mapping American newspaper coverage of more than 30 pivotal Holocaust-era events gathered through the Museum’s project History Unfolded: US Newspapers and the Holocaust. Citizen historians — educators, students, librarians, and members of the public — have submitted information about more than 22,000 newspaper articles from around the United States. The interactive map Zampetti created shows at a glance the scope of news coverage and editorial writing on Germany’s annexation of Austria, Nazis forcing Jews to wear yellow stars, and other events, as well as the circulation size of each paper.

“This visualization immediately captures the extent to which reporting about Holocaust-related events appeared all over the country in communities big and small,” said David Klevan, education outreach specialist in the Levine Institute.

While digital humanities does not replace the need for human critical analysis of text to interpret data and draw conclusions, its possibilities are endless.

“This fellowship is extraordinary and I will always be grateful for it,” Zampetti said. “I think people still are just kind of scraping the surface of what these capabilities are, and they’re constantly changing and getting better.”

A Forward-Thinking History Lab: University of Michigan Students Partner with the Museum

Last spring, ten doctorate-level students at the University of Michigan pored over photographs, newspaper articles, oral histories, diaries, and other materials from the Museum’s collection and posed challenging questions to one another: What does each document teach us? Why include this image over another? How do you evaluate the quality of a source?

University of Michigan students have an online meeting with Museum staff to discuss Experiencing History. —Chloe Thompson, University of Michigan, Department of History

These debates were central to an innovative learning experience called HistoryLab, formed through a partnership with the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.

Under the guidance of Museum staff, the Michigan students — only two of whom had specializations in Holocaust history — were tasked with curating collections for the Museum’s Experiencing History: Holocaust Sources in Context, a digital tool that contextualizes primary source material for the college classroom and is funded by the Alexander Grass Foundation.

“What primary sources do so powerfully is strip away the big stereotypes of this history,” explained Leah Wolfson, Rosalyn Unger director of campus outreach programs in the Mandel Center. “Primary sources get students to a point of ‘I never thought of it like that before.’”

For Experiencing History, the students chose 15–20 primary sources on two topics: “Nazi Ideals and American Society” and “Everyday Encounters with Fascism.” One research team even found a relevant article from the Dearborn Independent, a newspaper published in Michigan and supported by prominent Michigan resident and antisemite Henry Ford.

“We were teaching the students to be better historians and researchers through the process of collaboration,” said Rita Chin, associate dean for social sciences, Rackham Graduate School, and professor of history, University of Michigan. Chin planned the course with Jeffrey Veidlinger, who is the Joseph Brodsky collegiate professor of history and Judaic studies and director of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, University of Michigan. Their aim was to develop their students’ professional skills for the academic field and beyond, providing experience in researching in teams, presenting recommendations, and writing for the undergraduate audience.

As a member of the Museum’s Academic Committee, Veidlinger had heard of the Experiencing History project and thought that contributing to it would not only help meet the course goals, but would make the students aware of the Museum’s “tremendous research archive.” Moreover, the students would be creating public-facing work that would aid college instructors across North America and the world.

Learning to work like a public historian by creating accessible educational materials and using digital tools is a beneficial way to expand students’ overall professional skill set, said Luke Ryder, content manager for digital learning tools at the Museum’s William Levine Family Institute for Holocaust Education.

As part of the research process, the students spent time at the Museum with Ryder and his colleagues, exploring the archives, prototyping, testing, and presenting their work to Museum stakeholders for feedback.

Building this connection between scholars and the Museum is important, as it aids in keeping Holocaust studies “vibrant and vital,” explained Emil Kerenji, applied research scholar in the Mandel Center. Even if these graduate students do not have specializations in Holocaust history, they will now have a connection to the Museum and can utilize its educational resources, collections, and archives.

“This course helped me develop my collaborative research skills. I had no idea how the most fundamental aspects of research … could be advanced by working with other people.” — Michael Martin, doctoral student, Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Michigan

With the new content collections from HistoryLab, Experiencing History includes 20 collections that feature more than 200 unique primary sources, the majority of which come from the Museum’s collection. They have been used in more than 700 courses in more than 35 disciplines around the globe. Veidlinger and Chin plan to offer their course again in the future to help the Museum expand the offerings and their students’ experience. “Too often graduate students and faculty are too narrowly focused on their own research topic,” Veidlinger said. Participating in HistoryLab “broadened their boundaries.”



United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Memory & Action