Beyond the Ghetto: A New Polish Portal Rebuilds Shtetls With Wiki Power. And Lots and Lots of Photos.

Mention Polish Jews and you'll likely think of death camps and ghettoes. The four-month-old Virtual Shtetl Web site tells much, much more about the 1,000 years of Jewish history in Poland—a country that once offered the community religious refuge in medieval times and later became home to the world's biggest Jewish community. Like so many others in Europe, that community was almost obliterated during World War II. Virtual Shtetl creator Albert Stankowski knows it will never come back, but he hopes the site will at least resurrect some of it online. Stankowski likes to call the site a museum without walls—a multimedia precursor to the 2012 completion of Warsaw's long-anticipated Museum of the History of Polish Jews. But the shtetl site is more treasure trove than institutional preview. Its key feature: wiki technology enabling registered users to contribute memories, documents, and photos to the bilingual (English and Polish) site. The result is a portal where both Jews and non-Jews of Polish descent are collaborating to create a rich new archive of a millennium of Polish Jewry. Holocaust survivors and their descendants are contributing pictures of lives wiped out by the Nazis. Current residents, freed from Soviet revisionist history, are offering information on what formerly Jewish towns (shtetls) look like now. They're helping to relocate desecrated cemeteries damaged by the Germans and provide GPS coordinates to vanished places of interest.

So far, more than 900 shtetls are listed. Visitors who type in their names get a Google map and historical notes on the community. Information about Zgierz, for example, details how efforts to oust Jews from Christian neighborhoods in the 1820s foundered because the forced resettlement hurt the local economy. More than 3,000 pictures depict synagogues, pre-World War II street scenes, and sepia-tinted weddings. Many simply show gravestones.

Stankowski, the son of a Holocaust survivor and a Roman Catholic Pole, says the value of the project extends far beyond his home country. He is currently working on a cooperation agreement with the Jewish Culture and Information Center in Vilnius, Lithuania, and on a Hebrew version of the portal interface. He is also integrating the Virtual Shtetl with megasites like Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr. Meanwhile, he continues to relish the poignant personal histories uncovered by the site. One example: his communication with American Jews of Polish origin who believed they were the second generation of lawyers in their family. The site provided enough family background for them to establish that they were part of a far longer line of legal practitioners. Stankowski says that about 2,000 to 3,000 visit Virtual Shtetl daily. He expects that number to keep growing.