What did everyday life look like for a Polish Jew in Warsaw around the time of the First World War? We teach music history, musicology, Jewish history, and Slavic studies. Our students come to us with various pre-conceptions: either that Jews and Poles (conceived of as mutually exclusive categories) lived in open hostility to each other, or that they lived entirely separate from each other, their paths only crossing out of necessity. We want to create, together with our students, a digital tool that will challenge this pre-conception, and their broader ideas about history. We know that preconceptions often interfere with classroom instruction, and often remain much more salient than new knowledge (see, for example, Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, 2001). We believe that hands-on digital tools may do more to interfere with preconceptions than traditional methodologies.
The work of Menachem Kipnis (1878-1942) belies those assumptions. For 16 years, between 1902 and 1918, he performed with the Warsaw Opera; he also sang at the a synagogue in downtown Warsaw. He wrote about these experiences in a variety of newspapers, including Poland’s widest circulation Yiddish-language daily, Haynt. His accounts are full of rich details that mix the personal and the geographic—how he could run from Tłomackie Street to the Opera and arrive, out of breath, but with enough time to change, for example. Other archival records in which he appears demonstrate the difficulties that Jews faced in joining non-Jewish Polish society—Kipnis’s obviously-Jewish first name was not always given in Opera programs, or is Slavicized.
We came to create Mapping Kipnis as a challenge to see what an interactive mapping project, one designed by historians and Jewish studies scholars, could do for students’ (and our own) understandings of Kipnis’s world. Using Omeka, we present Kipnis’s Warsaw, with locations enhanced by his words and photographs. We plan a second phase of the project to look at Kipnis’s tour through Eastern Europe; his writing from those years offers a warm and colorful picture of Jewish life before the Holocaust. This phase will help students form an understanding of the political and cultural geography of Europe during the period.
Virtually none of our students have been to Warsaw, and have only the vaguest understanding of what it looks like, and even less of an understanding of pre-World War Two Warsaw. For these students, we believe that using interactive tools can provide a layer of understanding about the social geography of Jewish life in Poland that a purely textual account cannot.
Mapping Kipnis is incomplete and we envision students being able to contribute to it, and to add adjacent projects to it as well. Thus, it is both an instructionally demonstrative tool, and an opportunity for our students to familiarize themselves with digital mapping and with the potential digital life of archival material. We are delighted to bring Mapping Kipnis to Krakow in 2016, for demonstration and feedback. We hope it sparks as many conversations among participants as it has among the three of us.