Explaining my Dissertation and Research

I’ve recently had to explain *what I’m currently doing with my life* to friends and family outside of academia and realized that very few people understand what completing a PhD looks like, particularly in the humanities. So I figured I would come on here and try to explain the PhD process, as well as my research, as simply and clearly as possible. One of the goals of this website, in my mind, was always to chronicle this process – though I haven’t been successful at this yet. This can hopefully be one step towards fulfilling that goal as well.

In short, I am currently a PhD candidate. This signifies a certain position in the process of attaining your PhD. In my case, I entered my doctoral program with a Masters degree, which meant that when I started I was a PhD student who needed to take two years of coursework before becoming a PhD candidate (as opposed to those who start with a Bachelors degree, who often need three years of coursework). After you’ve completed all course requirements, you also need to take a series of exams – we call these comprehensive exams (some people have oral comprehensive exams, but ours were written). Then, you have to defend your dissertation prospectus, which is essentially your proposal for your dissertation. In the case of history projects, you have to adequately explain your research questions, the goal of your dissertation project, what types of sources you will utilize in your dissertation, what archives you will need to visit to access such sources, and why your project is significant to the wider historical narrative. Once you have achieved all of these things – the coursework, the exams, and the prospectus defense – you become a PhD candidate. We also call this ABD, or all-but-dissertation.

Since May 2021, I have been ABD. This means that my goal currently is to complete the research and writing necessary for my dissertation. One component of dissertating that most people find confusing when I describe this process is funding. Usually, while you are taking courses as a PhD student, you also serve as a Teaching Assistant, which you are paid for (though our stipends for this are abysmal). However, once you become ABD, you need to find funding to complete your research – particularly if your research will take you abroad. Some PhD candidates can and will TA while completing research – but this is not possible for me with my project and the research I need to do. So, in my case, and in the case of many PhD candidates in history, we have to apply for grants and fellowships to support our research. I will return to this issue later.

My current research, and my goal for my dissertation, is a culmination of my research interests over the past six years or so. I want to try to explain this research here, briefly. While finishing my Masters degree in Holocaust studies, I became fascinated with the fact that during the Second World War, many Jewish cemeteries in occupied Poland (and also in other areas) were destroyed as part of the genocide. But as I researched this concept, I discovered many instances of Jewish people using cemeteries to escape from ghettos or hide from deportations – and this concept became so much more interesting to me. However, I also felt that something was missing – how can I try to understand these varied uses of Jewish cemeteries during the Holocaust, without knowing the uses of these spaces before it?

That is one part of my dissertation research: how were Jewish cemeteries used during the interwar period in Poland, and how might these uses have influenced the utilization of these spaces during the war? Of course, the obvious answer to this question is that people use cemeteries for funerals. And that’s true, but even my early research has proved to me that the cemetery was a significant space in both time periods not just because it was a space for burials and funerals but for many other reasons as well. During the interwar period, Jewish cemeteries in Poland often became sites for conflict over political identification or even between Hasidic and more secular Jews (I have written a paper on this and it will hopefully be published next year). Another aspect of cemetery usage that fascinates me is how the use of Jewish cemeteries impacted the creation or alteration of ghetto boundaries during the Holocaust. The best example of this comes from the Warsaw ghetto, where the German authorities recognized the need for a cemetery as a space to bury the dead, and therefore, when changing the borders of the ghetto, included the Okopowa Street Jewish cemetery along the border. This meant that smuggling operations out of the ghetto, through the cemetery, were able to continue (saving thousands of lives) and people were also able to use the cemetery to escape from the ghetto. Hopefully this will be a paper I write soon as well.

My dissertation will hopefully examine four different thematic lenses of analysis: ritual, space, movement, and actors. I am interested in not just the ritual uses of these spaces, of which there are many, but also how the space of the cemetery influenced human behavior in these periods, how people moved between cemeteries and other spaces, and which actors were involved in the management or use of Jewish cemeteries. The goal, then, is that these methods of examination will allow me to place Jewish cemeteries into broader contexts in Polish Jewish history, as well as Jewish history and the study of the Holocaust.

In order to write a dissertation on this topic, I need to find sources to support this research. In the field of history, we use a variety of sources – we find sources from the time period we are examining to be the most accurate, such as a newspaper articles, diaries, journals, documents created at that time, etc. These, we call primary sources and they should serve as the foundation of our research. But there are other types of sources that we consider to be primary that might not be from the time period of examination – sources like memoirs and oral histories or testimonies (interviews) with people that experienced that history, are also vital to our projects because they are first-hand accounts of what happened. Currently, my goal in my research is pursuit of such primary sources. So far, I have accessed or found many newspaper articles, memoirs, oral histories, and other documents that support my research but I am in search of more! I was thankful to be able to spend some time at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s archives in the spring, where I accessed so many documents that I am still working through them.

One of my organization tools for keeping track of my dissertation. This map shows towns where I have found documentation on their Jewish cemeteries. I try to keep this as updated as possible. One goal for this project is to look at the use of cemeteries in individual towns but also build a wider narrative about cemetery use as well.

The type of project I envision will require examination of documents in many different archives around the world. This requires a fair amount of travel and time spent abroad. I am very grateful to receive some awesome fellowships for this academic year that give me funding to be able to travel and well, *survive*, while completing this research. The first fellowship is the Claims Conference Saul Kagan Academic Fellowship in Advanced Shoah Studies. This essentially provides an academic year of funding and it allows me to travel wherever I need to travel to complete my research. This fellowship is also wonderful because I can renew this funding for another year if necessary (it will probably be necessary). I also received a fellowship through the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City. This is a three-month in-residence fellowship to access YIVO’s archives. My current plan is to spend some time in Poland this fall (I leave in three weeks!), then spend January-March in residence in NYC. After that, I may return to Poland or make a trip to Israel in the spring.

I have also been using other organizational tools as well. This is Zotero, which organizes sources and allows you to more easily cite when using Word. This tool has really helped me to keep track of my sources – which ones I have translated, which I have yet to translate, where I keep notes on the documents – it can also link sources together using tags and collections.

I hope this post helps to explain my dissertation project. I also want to use this site to chronicle some of my research trips and important finds along the way. Hopefully I will remember to keep this as updated as possible. Writing is so crucial to our progress in academia, and hopefully writing in this form can keep me accountable while also allowing me to share information in a public manner.

Final Project: Mapping the Remembrance of Jewish Cemeteries in Poland

I first visited Poland during the summer of 2012. The trip was a chance for my mother and I to discover our Polish roots and to find answers to some of our genealogical questions. It was a brief stay, but in the short time we were there I became fascinated with the interactions between Polish and Jewish culture and the way Poles seemed to remember the Jewish past.

Over the course of my undergraduate classes in history and anthropology, I became more and more interested in this topic. I visited Poland once again during the summer of 2015 through a study tour with a memory organization in Lublin, Poland called Brama Grodzka – NN Theatre Centre. This study tour brought me to many incredible places and raised even more questions for me. I returned to college, desperate to find more answers.

My senior thesis focused on the remembrance of Jewish material culture in Poland. I specifically focused on Jewish cemeteries and mezuzah impressions (the marks left on the doorposts from the removal of mezuzot). In order to try to answer questions about memory in Poland, I analyzed the data of over one-thousand Jewish cemeteries in Poland. This data was found through Virtual Shtetl, a group that collects information on Jewish sites in Poland, the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FODZ), a group that works to preserve important physical sites of Jewish history and culture in Poland, and from my own travels throughout Poland. One goal of this project was to map the Jewish cemeteries on which I had collected data. In the end, I ran out of time to complete this part of the project.

Through research and examination of the material culture, I made a few conclusions about the memory of Jewish sites and objects in Poland. First, it is possible that “separate memories” of the past exist in the minds of the Polish people. An anthropologist completed a study of one small Polish town and through her interviews she discovered that the Poles in this town see the Polish history of the town and the Jewish history of the town as two separate histories. This anthropologist also suggests that the Jewish history is remembered by Poles as an almost fairytale-like story rather than actual history. I expanded upon this notion in my thesis by arguing that the “separate memories” notion could be the reason why some Jewish sites in Poland are being neglected and forgotten. (For more on this project, see: Wloszycka, Malgorzata. “Neglected Memory: The Recollection of Jews Among Poles. A Case Study of a Town in Southern Poland.” European Judaism 44 (2011): 81-90. Doi: 10.3167/ej.2011.44.02.06)

Specifically for cemeteries, I argue that there still exists a passive memory of these sites in Poles. But many Jewish cemeteries have been destroyed, left neglected, and do not have any forms of active remembrance (i.e., signs, information boards, fencing, cleaning, dedication ceremonies, memorials, etc.). Why is this the case? Why are some places/sites remembered while others are not? Through the “separate memories” theory, people that see Jewish history as separate from their own history will be less likely to act on remembering Jewish sites.

Jewish cemeteries in Poland are actively remembered and actively neglected in many ways. Through my research I established five categories of remembrance for Jewish cemeteries in Poland:

  • Absent (where there are no physical remnants of the cemetery above the surface and the cemetery has not been actively remembered in any way). This category indicates a lack of remembrance towards these site. In my thesis, I argued that the lack of physical markers on these sites might contribute to why there has been no acts of remembrance.

Czerwinsk nad Wisla New Jewish Cemetery Source: Virtual Shtetl

  • Neglected (where cemeteries have physical remnants above ground and have been neglected or destroyed. Many of these sites are overgrown, left in a state of disrepair, or destroyed.) This category also indicates a lack of remembrance. For me, this category is very intriguing. Even though physical remnants of these cemeteries remain, the lack of remembrance signifies that it is not the physical remnants that indicate whether a site will be actively remembered.

Szczebrzeszyn Jewish Cemetery Source: ACurry 2015

  • Altered (where cemeteries have been altered in some way and are no longer used as cemeteries. These sites include cemeteries that have been turned into parks, schools, housing developments, government buildings, playgrounds, gas stations, etc.) These sites now function in completely different ways than their original purpose. This category indicates neither remembrance nor neglect/ignorance. It seems to be a mix of both. While it seems some memory of these sites remain, as many of these sites have memorials to the Jewish cemeteries, this category overall indicates an ability for Poles and Polish society to overlook the Jewish history present in order to function within their own society.

Jozefow nad Wisla Jewish Cemetery Source: Virtual Shtetl. Site is used as a garbage dump today.

  • Memorial (where the only form of remembrance to the cemetery is through a monument or memorial.) This category usually indicates remembrance, where the memorial present identifies the site as being the location of a Jewish cemetery. It is often the case that though there are memorials at these sites, the memorials might mark a completely different event and disregard the Jewish cemetery present. In the site pictured below, the memorial contains plaques commemorating those that died during the war, but is not specific to Jews or to the Jewish cemetery present. The plaques are written in four different languages, including Hebrew. So while these sites mainly reflect remembrance, they also reflect a lack of memory.

Goleniow Jewish Cemetery Source: Virtual Shtetl

  • Remembered (where there exist multiple forms of active remembrance to the cemetery. This can include: cleaning, fencing, memorials/monuments, on-site tours, dedication ceremonies, etc.) These sites indicate remembrance, and often remembrance in multiple ways. In my thesis, I analyzed how these sites are being remembered and who is remembering them. For the most part, these sites are being remembered by Jewish organizations, or Jewish groups that have a connection to the site. Despite remembrance efforts being led by Jewish groups, there are many examples of Poles leading remembrance activities as well. This indicates that some Poles understand, view, and remember this history in a way that makes them feel responsible for it in some manner.

Milejczyce Jewish Cemetery Source: Virtual Shtetl

This class, Introduction to Digital Public Humanities, has given me the opportunity to map the Jewish cemeteries in Poland. The goal of mapping these cemeteries is to understand if there is a spatial reason for the remembrance or neglect of Jewish cemeteries in Poland. Through my senior thesis, I was able to understand the social, anthropological, and psychological reasons behind the remembrance of Jewish cemeteries in Poland. But my analysis lacked a geographical perspective…until now! Thanks to CartoDB, I was able to map data that I have been collecting for over a year.

This link will take you to the interactive version of my general remembrance map. This map is a color-coded map of all of the Jewish cemeteries in Poland that I found data on. The sites are color-coded based on the remembrance of the site. In all, I have mapped 1,124 Jewish cemeteries in Poland. The majority of the sites are actively remembered in some way, but as you can see from the map, there are also many sites that have not been remembered.

Here is another interesting image from the general map of the cemeteries:

This is a heat-density map. It shows where most of the Jewish cemeteries in Poland are located (the red areas) and where there is a lesser density of Jewish cemeteries in Poland (the blue/green areas). This map shows that most of the Jewish cemeteries are centered around southeastern Poland. Though there were Jewish settlements throughout all of Poland, most Jews lived in this southeastern region of Poland. (We also have to remember that the boundaries of Poland changed many times throughout the last one thousand years. But this project is using the modern map of Poland to understand the past). In this way, it makes sense that most of the Jewish cemeteries would be located in this southeastern region of Poland.

Before digging into the remembrance data, I also want to post a time-lapse map of the establishment dates for these cemeteries. The establishment of cemeteries often denotes the establishment of Jewish populations in a specific town or village. This map, though it shows the range of establishment of the cemeteries, also thereby shows the establishment and spread of Jewish communities in Poland.

This first image shows the first step in the time-lapse map. Here we can see one of the first established cemeteries in Poland, the Wroclaw Medieval Jewish Cemetery, established around 1190. From the year 1200 on, we can witness through the time-lapse map the expansion of Jewish communities in Poland.

By 1300, a few more Jewish cemeteries had been established. We can see that there is a cluster of these early cemeteries in western Poland and cluster in eastern/central Poland. This shows the expansion further into Poland, from the west towards central Poland, which would only continue in the coming centuries.

By 1400 C.E., we finally see the expansion into southern Poland and into eastern Poland. The Warsaw Medieval Jewish Cemetery was one of the cemeteries established by 1400, signaling the beginning of a town that would become a center of Jewish life in Poland.

The explosion of Jewish life in Poland would not begin until around 1600 C.E. By this time, Jewish life, specifically in southeastern Poland began to expand fairly rapidly. This image from the time-lapse map further shows the expansion of Jewish communities in Poland, showing that many communities settled in the southeastern region.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were the climax of Jewish expansion in Poland. By 1800 C.E., there are more Jewish cemeteries throughout the entirety of Poland. We also see the first cemeteries in northern Poland during this time.

This image of the time-lapse map shows the Jewish cemeteries present by 1940. This map is fairly precise to the first Remembrance map, as most of the Jewish communities in Poland were destroyed during and after WWII. Very few cemeteries were established post-war, but there were a few. Overall, the time-lapse map is a great way to visualize and portray the settlement of Jewish life in Poland over the last eight hundred years. By viewing this map in motion, we can almost witness the expansion of Jewish communities as it happened.

Back to the remembrance of Jewish cemeteries. I broke down this map into five different maps, one for each category of remembrance.

When I first went through and separated these maps, I couldn’t find many differences between them. For the most part, many of these maps resemble the initial map: it seems most of the sites are in southern Poland, which was true for the initial map showing all of the Jewish cemeteries in Poland. So I decided to look at heat maps instead, to see if those would show more than the regular “dot” maps do.

Sure enough, this type of map was a great way of portraying the remembrance of Jewish cemeteries in Poland. I started again with the Absent category, which includes any cemetery that is not being actively remembered in any way. This map looks very different from initial map of the Absent cemeteries. Here, the Lublin region and a region near Wroclaw are highlighted as the areas with the least amount of remembrance. Also important to note is the absence of sites in the very southern portion of the country and in the regions surrounding Krakow.

The heat map of the neglected cemeteries in Poland shows concentrated regions of neglect in eastern Poland, southern Poland, southwestern Poland, and northwestern Poland. North-central Poland is conspicuously lacking neglected cemeteries.

Cemeteries that have undergone a change in identity have some interesting hot-spots in the heat map. Regions highlighted in this map include Bialystok, Lublin, Rzeszow, and an area outside Lodz. The majority of the Altered Category cemeteries are in the eastern/southeastern part of the country.

Though these maps are all different, many of the concentrated areas of cemeteries reside in southern Poland, where most of the Jewish cemeteries in Poland are located. However, these maps do show slight difference. The map of the neglected cemeteries shows a very concentrated regions of cemeteries northwest of Krakow and other less concentrated regions in central Poland and around Lublin.

Finally, the map of the remembered cemeteries shows intense concentrations of cemeteries in southern and central Poland. The cemeteries that have been actively remembered are centered around Krakow, Warsaw, Lodz, and the very southeastern tip of Poland. This patterning is understandable: Warsaw, Krakow and Lodz are some of the largest towns in Poland, places that still have Jewish communities to this day. It is likely that the remembrance of Jewish cemeteries in this region is due to the Jewish communities and organizations present in these towns.

Conclusions and Final Thoughts:

Mapping the Jewish cemeteries in Poland based on their remembrance did not highlight much new about the remembrance of Jewish cemeteries in Poland. Many of my initial conclusions about how Jewish cemeteries are remembered in Poland are supported by these maps. The cemeteries that are remembered seem to be located near some of the larger cities in Poland, where modern-day Jewish communities are centered, and in southeastern Poland where Jewish life in Poland was centered. It is these Jewish communities and organizations that are completing much of the memory work on these cemeteries.

This project did aide in helping me to visualize the data that I have been collecting. I can now see how heavily saturated the southern area of Poland is with Jewish cemeteries. I could also use the time-lapse feature in CartoDB to visualize the spread of Jewish civilization in Poland throughout the past one-thousand years.

CartoDB was a great tool to use for this project. The most complicated part of the project was editing my spreadsheet to work with CartoDB because my spreadsheet contained so much data. Despite this, working with CartoDB was simple and user-friendly. From the minute I connected my spreadsheet, CartoDB recognized my categories and my data. The work on my end from there on out was very little.

I think CartoDB, though it is a fantastic and simple mapping tool, could expand its possibilities in a few ways. First, I would love if there were a feature to add photos to the data in the maps. As my project was focused on material culture, being able to add pictures to the maps would enhance viewer interaction with the maps. Next, there were certain aspects of working within CartoDB that were repetitive. In order to alter or change a map, you need to re-publish the map to change the features. Even though I was working with much of the same data, I needed to publish six different maps just to show various aspects of the analysis or to change the text overlays.

Overall, this process was fairly straightforward and simple. If I were to continue this project, I would spend more time working with Carto’s various mapping tools. I focused here on the categories tool and the heat map tool, but  better tools to use to understand this data might exist within CartoDB. I would also take some time to overlay certain data in order to better understand how this data interacts. It would be interesting to spend some time with the heat map of remembered cemeteries and overlay “dot” data from the absent and neglected ceremonies to see if there is any overlap. This might help to more deeply understand my data. I hope to work with CartoDB more in the future and gain a better understanding of how this program works.

I will leave this project with a quote from Polish journalist Anna Bikont on the memory of a small town in Poland:

“Polish truth. Jewish truth. It’s obvious to many residents that there are two separate truths here.”

(Bikont, Anna. The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. pg 140).