This June marks the 75th anniversary of the Nazi takeover of Vilnius from the Soviets and the beginning of the end of Vilna’s 400 years of glory as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.”
So, it seems fitting then that this month teams of archaeologists, historians, geoscientists, architects, and geophysicists set out to research and excavate some of the story of Vilna — and the Jewish community that made it famous — in the years preceding, during and following World War II.
The Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford led by its director, Dr. Richard Freund, is at the forefront of this multi-pronged project that includes excavations at the site of the infamous Rasu Prison — the headquarters of the Nazi commander and the Rasu internment site for “special prisoners” — which is still a prison and educational facility for corrections officers in modern Vilnius; the Ponary burial pits 10 kilometers outside of Vilna and the last resting place of an estimated 100,000 people, including 70,000 Jews; and ongoing research into the Great Synagogue of Vilna.
“Our work begins with non-invasive mapping,” said Freund, “There are two aspects to our work at Paneriai (Ponary in Yiddish) this summer. We are attempting to locate and define burial pits that may not have been located in the forest with specialized ground penetrating radar (GPR) and we are attempting to locate and map the 30 meter long tunnel which the Jews used to escape from Ponary on April 15, 1944. Electrical Resistivity Tomography (ERT) is generally used in gas and oil and now mineral and water exploration. We have been using it for archaeology and because it is non-invasive the mapping of very sensitive areas like graves has been the way we work first to avoid the indignity of disturbing a burial.”
According to Freund, ERT also is valuable because it can map down to 30 meters and differentiate materials used.
“We will be using it to trace one of the ‘great Jewish escapes’ of the Holocaust. One of the most courageous and unsung escapes of World War II by Jews happened on the last night of Passover 1944 through a tunnel that was located in an area of the pits that was dug over 76 days using spoons and other handy materials. The 11 Jews who survived the escape told an amazing story. The tunnel is some 12 meters below the ground at parts and comes to the surface and we will trace with ERT.”
One of the first and primary targets this summer of the Greenberg Center-led team, says Freund, is the story of the Great Synagogue.
In 2015, after the team discovered using GPR that the Great Synagogue might still be buried under a local elementary school, Dr. Jon Seligman, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority licensing and permits bureau for excavation in Israel, proposed that Freund bring his geoscientists to investigate the Great Synagogue site to see if anything remains. The non-invasive survey located excavation areas such as the Great Synagogue’s mikveh that was still there.
A story published in the Connecticut Jewish Ledger in 2015 on the work and Freund (“In Search of Jewish History: Unearthing the Greater Synagogue of Vilna,” July 3, 2015) prompted a note from Irene Bernhard, who grew up in West Hartford and told Freund the story of her grandfather and her mother’s escape from Vilna starting after Sept. 14, 1943.
Bernhard’s father was the head of the Judenrat, the Jewish council of the Vilna Ghetto, in 1942 and 1943. He was murdered by the Nazi commander Neugebauer at 6 p.m. on the evening of Sept. 14. According to testimonies, he was buried in Rasu prison with other “special” prisoners. Bernhard wanted to find out where he was buried.
Freund invited Bernhard’s mother, Ada, to come in and speak with him and Dr. Avinoam Patt, the Philip D. Feltman Professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Hartford and a well-known Holocaust scholar. The two were stunned that the 89-year-old woman remembered minute details of the Jewish ghetto life.
“She lived next door to where we are staying in Vilna at 7 Geliu Street!” reported Freund, and she provided “unique information about the Vilna Ghetto as well as about the very important historical figure Jacob Gens who was her father. [Bernhard] is here [in Vilna] with her whole family as we do the work. The Rasu Prison is where her father was shot and buried on Sept. 14, 1943. The Ghetto was liquidated nine days later.”
According to written testimonies, supporters of Gens, thinking they would return to retrieve his body later for proper burial, broke a plate into his grave and deposited his personal archives in a metal cigar box. They also placed Gens’ notebook in a metal cigar box and buried him with the artifacts.
Now, Freund’s team is using a new technique in geophysics that allows the ERT to pin-point metal targets, even small ones, below the surface and give GPS coordinates.
“To my knowledge we are the first expedition to attempt to work and find these special persons burials in the Rasu Prison,” said Freund. “Seventy-three years later we have returned armed with GPR and ERT and hope to give Ada and her family a place to designate as Jacob Gens’ last resting spot. The metal box is the key. The NOVA PBS science series is following the work from The Great Synagogue to Ponary to the Rasu Prison burials. We think it will be very inspiring to watch.”