An Accounting

Picturing the Uncertain World closes with visualizations created by the Jewish residents of the Kovno Ghetto. The visualizations were created as part of a community effort to record the Holocaust as it happened. There are bar and line and isotype charts of population changes, tables that summarize overcrowding, diagrams that show common illnesses and injuries in the ghetto. One line chart caught and held me: a display showing the population of the ghetto in September 1941 and again in November of the same year.

kovno chart

Scanned from Picturing the Uncertain World. More images here from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and a full electronic exhibit on the Kovno Ghetto here.

The red upper line represents the population in September 1941, split into age groups across the bottom axis. The black lower line represents the population in November of the same year. The shaded region in between represents the people who died that autumn.

In the face of deprivation and death, the residents of the Kovno Ghetto did what all humans do: record. When moments are too big for our capacity to feel and understand, we spill them out into diaries, letters, conversations, and art. The Statistics Office in the Kovno Ghetto recorded their community in its entirety: how many people once lived there, and how many still survived.

Wainer writes, “some [of the records left by residents] contain statistical tables and charts, usually thought of as dry and dispassionate, that carry with them not only the uncontestable authority of fact but also the capacity to elicit the viewer’s emotions.” He isn’t wrong about an emotional response to these images. But I don’t see graphs—these or others—as dry and dispassionate. Graphs are expressions of the human desire to explore and to share. Data analysis is discovery. Data displays are made on the return journey to say, look what I found. I made this so we can understand together. Visualization is an answer to enormity and the limits of human memory. In this case, visualization is also an answer to atrocity and obliteration.

A count of people is not the people themselves. The fleck of pigment on a chart that represents a person is not a person. I can’t tell you the names of the Kovno residents in the shaded red region of the chart, the music they made, who they loved. Abstraction dehumanizes: that’s nothing new. But abstraction has its own humanity, too. Careful record-keeping is not a neutral or mechanical act. It is, in this case, an act of care. These counts don’t capture the size and shape of anyone’s life, but they make sure everyone is included and no one is left behind.

I’m not claiming that visualization is magic. Sometimes what humans want to share is cruel and malignant. There are graphics from Nazis in that chapter too, crowing over Jewish coffins. But the visualizations form the residents of the Kovno Ghetto were made to tell a story, and they cry out for recognition and remembrance.

This is just one chart from the full work, titled “Numbers That Demand An Accounting!” The piece is inside a frame with two doors that swing open, placed on a pedestal and topped with a lintel like a crown. The shape echoes the ark that held Torah scrolls in my childhood synagogue. The ark is sacred. The congregation stands when it is open. It holds the lives of our ancestors: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.

The people of the Kovno Ghetto captured the enormity of their loss. They put it in a sacred vessel, and gave it a name that demanded answers. They made carefully drawn, precisely annotated plots to say, see who we lost. Look who still lives. I want you to understand.

As the ark is closed in Shabbat services, the congregation sings a blessing that begins, it is a tree of life to them that hold fast to it. A memory of death is not life. But I see, and I remember.

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