Maps Reveal Nazi-Confiscated Land

Geography Students Help Local Man Recover his Family's Property in Germany

During the years leading up to World War II, the Third Reich in Nazi Germany seized land from Jews and Christians alike for the war effort. After the war ended, Germany was divided into sectors, with the Allies controlling the west and the Soviet Union the east. Land on the Allies’ side was given back to the original owners after 1946, but land in the east remained frozen until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.Now, more than a half-century after the end of World War II, a land dispute case involving property seized by the Nazis is playing out in the Geography Department’s Applied GIScience (Geographic Information Systems) lab.

In the summer of 2007, Larry Cerf came to the lab to ask for assistance. His great-grandfather had owned a large amount of agricultural and industrial land surrounding Berlin. In the early 1930s, the Nazis confiscated the land for government use. The family fled to Switzerland and eventually settled in the United States.

In the early 1990s, Cerf started to search for proof of his family’s land ownership in Germany. What he found were hundreds of deeds and historic maps with connections to his relatives. The problem: He knew only the general area where the parcels of land were located. Fortunately, the St. Thomas Geography Department has many competent student researchers who seek out real-world problems such as this to improve their skills.

The Applied GIScience lab is a state-of-the-art mapping laboratory in John R. Roach Center for the Liberal Arts. It specializes in spatial research for a variety of disciplines. It can be used for almost anything ranging from business to conservation, or, in this case, courts of law.

To find where the Cerf family’s land was located, we needed to study the deeds in concert with historic maps. That provided a basic framework, but it still did not solve the problem of locating the land in modern time. In the GIS lab, we took satellite images from Google Earth of the area surrounding Berlin and associated them with real coordinates in the GIS software. With that we could take the historic deeds and reference them to the land as it stands today.

While it sounds easy, the project proved to be quite difficult. Some deeds dated as far back as 1863; the landscape of the towns has changed dramatically over time, making it difficult to find landmarks that still exist today. After many hours of work with the deeds, we finally were able to produce maps with accurate depictions of where the parcels currently are located. With these maps in hand, we calculated the areas of the parcels, allowing Cerf to connect them to parcels for which he had proof of confiscation.

Over the course of a year, Cerf sent us more historic maps and deeds and we associated them with actual areas using satellite images. We created multiple maps with area calculations and overlays of the deeds on satellite imagery. A big break came in fall 2008, when the German Supreme Court accepted his case [which has been delayed]. Because our maps could prove to be effective pieces of evidence for the case, he decided it would be beneficial for us to go to Germany ourselves and research the case in greater detail.

In late October, Cerf paid for us (Moen and Hoffman) to travel to Berlin for a week, where we searched for maps that could be useful. We went to archives outside of Berlin to search records for anything of relevance. Two historians working on his case met us there to help orient us and get us into the archives.

We filled our hotel room with big plots of maps of key areas that the historians found in their research. We pieced the maps together to get the whole picture. Eventually we came up with multiple maps that we thought could be useful in the GIS lab.

We spent most of our time in Berlin in an archive outside the city. There we had access to all the maps, building plans and deeds from the late 19th century to present. We pored over hundreds of documents trying to find relevant data that would be useful to map in GIS. We were able to find some very useful deeds that could be relevant but we could not be sure until we were back in the GIS lab. At the end of the week we had a few dozen documents and maps that we had copied or scanned to bring back to St. Paul.

We had spent many hours working with satellite images and felt as if we knew the land like the back of our hands. To actually walk on lands that we had spent so much time studying on paper was a very satisfying experience that brought a whole new understanding to our work.

When we returned, it was back to the lab to input the data into GIS. With a greater understanding of the case from our trip, we created a comprehensive map with multiple deeds over one satellite image. Using this base map, we created files that show how the land ownership has changed over the years, highlighting gaps that were unknown to us before. We hope these maps will be useful in court and that the land which has been disputed for more than 60 years will be returned to its rightful owners.

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