|GIS Technology Helps Local Edina Man Reclaim Long Lost Land
By Catherine Hansen, University of St. Thomas
In the summer of 2007, a conversation started between Larry Cerf (Edina) and the Geography Department at the University of St. Thomas regarding the possibilities of locating and mapping acreages confiscated by Nazi Germany in the early 1930s. Cerf’s grandfather’s family had owned a large amount of agricultural and industrial land east of Berlin. Documentation had been buried in the East German state until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. His aunt had been working to reclaim the land lost, however, the project fell on Cerf’s shoulders with her death in 1992. Since then, Cerf has found proof of hundreds of deeds and historic maps with connections to his relatives, some dating as far back as 1863.
The problem for him was matching historical maps and deeds with the present landscape. Sixty years of landscape change, particularly in post WWII Germany, made it nearly impossible to prove where and what had belonged to Cerf’s family. After a visit browsing much of Cerf’s evidence with St. Thomas Geographers Robert Werner and Catherine Hansen, the mapping project was clarified.
GIS lab assistants Kevin Hoffman (‘08) and Jim Moen (‘09) scanned and geo-referenced many paper maps and photos to help Cerf organize the mosaic of knowledge he had been gathering. In the GIS lab, Hoffman and Moen took satellite images from Google Earth of the area surrounding Berlin and associated them with real coordinates in the GIS software. With that they could take the historic deeds (one at a time) and reference them to the land as it stands today.
After many hours of work with the deeds, they were finally able to produce maps with accurate depictions of the lost parcels current locations. They then calculated the areas of the parcels, allowing Cerf to connect them to parcels for which he had proof of confiscation.
The results were very impressive to Cerf who, once seeing the reports, suggested that the students travel to Germany to see the land they were mapping and visit the land offices to browse for further maps and records. More scanning and geo-referencing later, the knowledge and proof provided Cerf the evidence he needed in the court of law.
In the fall of 2008, the German Supreme Court accepted his case, although the trial date has yet to be established. Geographic research with the assistance of GIS technology once again saves the day, one location and layer at a time.
Editor’s Note: The Star Tribune did an article on this project on April 18, 2009: “GIS technology starts a journey to help undo a Nazi crime.” For a limited time that article will be online at http://www.startribune.com Search for “GIS” or look for articles by columnist Gail Rosenblum.