How does one find and map mass graves from more than 75 years ago? As with Daesh (aka IS or ISIS or the Islamic State) and the Yazidis, the Nazis were both thorough and secretive. In many of the shtetls (small Jewish villages of Eastern Europe) of Lithuania, there were simply no survivors to provide eyewitness accounts. 174 Holocaust mass graves have been documented in Lithuania by the Catholic Priest Patrick Desbois, more than 200 by the Jewish community in Lithuania, and there are likely many more undocumented mass burials. What survivors that may still be alive today would certainly have been very young in the period of 1941 through 1944. Similar to the situation of the marooned astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) faced on Mars, we are simply “going to have to science the shit out of this.”
Each site will be quite different, but we have laid out a multi-step process for ourselves. We will try to throw everything at the first and largest of these sites, Fort IX in Kaunas, where an estimated 45,000 to 50,000 Jews were executed. And in some ways, the approach will not be much different from any old geoscience investigation.
When the Soviets had the German Army retreating into the Baltics in 1944, the Luftwaffe carried out intensive aerial photography over Lithuania and elsewhere along the Russian front. The Western allies captured about 1,250,000 of these photos, and all were declassified after the end of the Cold War in the 1990s. So, air photo interpretation is an early step.
Reading testimonies, interviews, and eyewitness accounts is a second step. In Fort IX, not only do we have the accounts of the 64 Jewish slaves from the 1943 Christmas day escape, but we have other obscure but astounding accounts such as “The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry.” The Black Book is a collection of diaries, testimonies, and letters compiled during the war by two accomplished Russian authors, Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman.
At Fort IX, in the 1960’s, the Lithuanians carried out limited excavations of the mass graves, and even assembled a map of the burial trench layouts…though without a scale, coordinates, or even the cardinal directions. We (actually, a Lithuanian Professor in Calgary) are presently translating the excavation notes, and trying to make sense of the maps.
From July 8 through 13, we hope to throw everything we have, geophysically, at the euphemistically Nazi termed “battlefield” of Fort IX…an air and ground assault….radar, magnetics, resistivity, electromagnetics, sensors flown from drones, etc…
At Fort IX, there will be no excavations, but we hope to do a soil geochemistry program that will act as a proxy for exposing human remains, something that is forbidden in any of the Jewish Holocaust burials. By correlating the testimonies to the air photos to the limited excavations of the 1960’s, and all of that to the geophysical images and soil chemistry, we are hopeful that we can precisely delineate the 15 burial trenches described by the surviving members of the Burning Brigade.
Seequent, whose 3D geological visualization software we (Alastair McClymont, Colin Miazga, Eric Johnson, Paul Bauman, Chris Slater) used for our 2017 water exploration program in the Rohingya Refugee Camps of Bangladesh, wrote a short piece looking back at the project for World Water Day. What is particularly nice about the article, though, is that they embedded some of the 3D visualization interfaces so anyone can take a spin and not only get a sense of the process, but take a look at some of the geology, geophysics data, existing water wells, and aerial drone imagery as well. The link to the article is:
Of course Alastair, Colin, Chris, and myself are hurriedly preparing for our departure to Lithuania and Poland this Saturday, July 6. And Eric is girding himself to do all the work that we will be avoiding while we are in Europe.
Our Geoscientists Without Borders project has expanded beyond the mass grave mapping in Lithuania to a few truly iconic sites within the boundaries of what was the Warsaw Ghetto. Poland is planning to begin building a Warsaw Ghetto Museum in September, and is scheduled to complete the museum by 2023, 80 years after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The very fact that the museum is being built within the perimeter of what was the largest Jewish Ghetto in Europe at a time that is now a very politically sensitive period in Poland has placed the project under great scrutiny. As such, we will be investigating the grounds in a pre-construction survey to find what "features" may still exist before excavations begin.
I have not seen the plans of the museum, but after taking in a wonderful Canada Day Klezmer concert in Invermere with Frank Rackow and Frank Rackow and The Black Sea, one early suggestion would be for the Warsaw Ghetto Museum to expand their three language explanations (Polish, Hebrew, and English) to four, by including Yiddish of course.
From 1941 to 1944, about 45,000 Jews were shot and buried alive in fourteen 100 m long trenches here at Fort IX in Kaunas (or Kovno in Yiddish), Lithuania. The killing continued until 75 years ago, almost to the day, as the Kovno Ghetto was liquidated from July 8 through 13, 1944. Even after three years of mass murder and deportations, there were still 30,000 or so Jews living in the Ghetto. About 400 survived the liquidation.
"Liquidation" meant blowing up every brick building, block by block, and setting fire to the wooden buildings and whatever else was standing on July 12, 1944. Later photographs of the Ghetto showed only scattered chimneys remaining. This final act of destruction of the ghettos, the Lithuanian Jewish community, and much of the remains of an entire culture was precipitated by the approaching Soviet army and the Nazi's perverted persistence in completing the evil task they had set for themselves. Few Lithuanians, though, would describe the Russians and the 45 following years of oppression as liberators or liberation.
Wednesday, July 10, and today, Thursday, July 11, thirteen of us have been trying to figure out exactly where the burial trenches are at Fort IX, how the site was altered by the Soviets after "liberation," and what methods are effective in identifying and mapping mass graves.Geoscientists Without Borders is the main supporter of our work, along with University of Hartford Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studieswho have supported us in past projects. Alastair McClymont, Colin Miazga, Paul Bauman, and Chris Slater are the four lead geophysicists from Advisian - Worley Group. Harry Jol and his six undergraduate students from the UWEC (University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire) are here to learn with as well as to assist us as co-investigators. The students are in the departments of Environmental Geography and Geospatial Studies. Dean of Science from Duquesne University, Dr. Phil Reeder, a cartographer by training, is helping with the mapping. And Professor Richard Freund, formerly from the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford, and recently relocated to Christopher Newport University in Virginia, is the historian and archaeologist providing an overall direction to this project. Paul Bauman Geophysics is of course providing, at no cost, an unusually large suite of geophysics instruments....18 pieces of 23 and 32 kilograms in fact. Every day feels a bit like a university field school, except instead of looking for minerals or oil, we are mapping what I like to think of as history.
Josie Bauman Photography is not only documenting our work, but providing some documentation of artifacts and journals in the Fort IX archives, and shooting some photographs to promote the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liquidation of the Kovno Ghetto, being memorialized this weekend at the Ninth Fort.
Over the next few days, there may appear the largest concentration of "Litvaks," that is, Jews of Lithuanian origin, anywhere in the world outside of Israel or the United States.
Yesterday, while we were working, an elderly but robust man with a group of 25 or so much younger people interrupted me to ask what we were doing. I was very pleased to lower the 25 kilogram lead marine battery from my shoulders and to describe our project. I assumed he was a tour guide and Kovno Ghetto survivor. I was wrong. Of the 5000 or so Jews who were imprisoned in the Siauliai (Shavli in Yiddish) Ghetto to the north of Kaunas, he was one of about 500 that survived the liquidation, was transported by train to the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland, and survived that as well. He was traveling through Kaunas on his way to the 75th year commemoration of the liquidation of the Shavli Ghetto also in July 1944. He was accompanied by, and leading his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.
We carried out geophysical and drone imagery surveys at Fort 9 in Kaunas last Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, July 10 through 12. But we drove the 90 minutes back to Kaunas and Fort 9 on the Sunday for the commemoration of the liquidation of the Kaunas (Kovno in Yiddish) Ghetto 75 years ago.
On June 22, 1941, the Germans attacked the Soviet Union and entered Lithuania. One day later, on June 23, the Germans entered Kovno, leaving no time for the City’s Jewish population of 35,000 to flee. On July 10, the mayor and military commander of Kovno declared the establishment of a Jewish Ghetto in the impoverished suburb of Slobodka on the north side of the Neris river from Kovno. The Jewish population of Slobodka swelled from 6,000 to 35,000.
As a ghetto, the Jews were sequestered as slave labour in horrendously overcrowded conditions. In late October of 1943, the conditions became much worse when the Germans transformed the Ghetto into a concentration camp. As a concentration camp, any fantastical Nazi pretenses of cloistering Jews for their own protection were discarded. The very young and elderly were transported to Auschwitz and gassed. 2,800 young men and women were deported to slave labour camps Estonia. Only Jews capable of working, were kept alive in the Ghetto.
At the same time of the transformation of the Kovno Ghetto into a concentration camp, the Nazis used 64 Jews from the Ghetto, from Jewish POWs in the Red Army, and fromJewish partisan groups, to begin to exhume the 50,000 or so mass burials at Fort 9, to burn the bodies, to crush the bones, and to bury or scatter the ashes.
As Soviet forces approached Kaunas, and being intent on not leaving a single Jew alive of the surviving 8,000, the Germans found resources to deport remaining Jews to the Dachau and Stutthof concentration camps. On July 11, the Germans began to systematically destroy Kovno, shooting anyone that tried to flee the Ghetto. On July 12, they set Kovno on fire. Each of the approximate 400 survivors had stories of hiding themselves in secret spaces (malinas) dug below the floors or in basements, smuggling themselves out of the Ghetto, or simply fleeing on foot. The Red Army entered Kovno on August 1, 1944.
At the ceremony, a few survivors of the Kovno Ghetto, largely from Israel, returned to the killing site at Ninth Fort where we have been working, and where the ceremony was held. There were also a few hundred children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of these survivors. Many Lithuanians, including from Kaunas, from the Fort 9 Museum, and from the government were also present.
Of all the speeches…and of course we understood none of the Lithuanian, very little of the Yiddish, most of the Hebrew…the most powerful for me was from the first resident Ambassador from Israel to Lithuania, Amir Maimon. Besides speaking in English, Maimon also gave a personal anecdote which clearly explained why we were carrying out geophysical surveys at this place of death. Some time earlier Maimon had come to Fort 9 with his son. “I saw with my very own eyes a newly married couple coming here to take pictures. How can it be that a couple, on the happiest day of their lives, come to this place of tragedy. The answer is very simple; they simply do not know.” And so here we are, trying to better understand, if not why, at least exactly where these mass murders and burials occurred, so that they can be demarcated, protected, memorialized, and perhaps serve as a cautionary narrative.
Yesterday, August 25th, I was at the computer preparing a talk for a Symposium at Duquesne Universisty on Global Sustainability. My working title is: “Water, Refugees, and Geophysics – Are Humanitarian Water Problems 'Our' Problems?” Nevertheless, when WhatsAPP started buzzing on my phone, and I saw the call was coming from Bangladesh, I still had to think for a moment whether or not this was "My" problem.
On a very scratchy connection, that might as well have been coming from a phone under water in a monsoon flooded ravine in a remote corner of Bangladesh, was Sattar Islam Nirob. Sattar is a Rohingya aid worker and Rohingya youth representative (to UNHCR). We met in Cox’s Bazar in November, 2017.
Being Canadian, my first question of course was “how is the weather?” The monsoon rains had stopped for the moment.
He had called to remind me of the 1 year anniversary of the August 25, 2017 beginning of the latest round of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, the mass exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims, the murders, the rapes, the orphans, and the protests. “What protests?” I asked. And what are they asking for? Sattar said thousands of men and women were protesting in the camps, requesting not for food nor housing, but with only two demands…secure human rights, and international protection. “Send me pictures?” I asked. And here they are.
I am willing to ignore the “cultural appropriation” seen in the photos. “Never again” was likely first widely used in association with the last stand of the Jews against the Romans at Massada, and of course became part of the lingua franca in association with the Warsaw Ghetto, Dachau, and the Holocaust in general. Given that last week in Singapore, on August 22nd, the honorary Canadian citizen, Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and Myanmar leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi alluded to transforming the Rohingya’s Rakhine state into a beach resort for foreigners, how many more UN and Canadian envoys must be sent to Bangladesh before the words Never Again are put into action?
The Society of Exploration Geophysicists and the Foundation Geoscientists Without Borders also made a trailer for the Kakuma podcast. Many of the photographs are by Josie Bauman from Quest University Canada who was half of the documentary film crew.
Besides the podcast being released on June 20, World Refugee Day, I was a Keynote speaker on the same day (serendipity or fate) at the geoscience conference in Vancouver RFG, Resources for Future Generations 2018. I had the great honor of speaking on Water Constraints with Dr. Jay Famiglietti, from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology - Caltech, and now the University of Saskatchewan; Dr. Jason Gurdak from San Francisco State University who spoke about the groundwater situation in California; and Nalaine Morin, of the Tahltan First Nation, who gave a water perspective from both her engineering and aboriginal perspectives. My talk was titled Looking for "Good Water in Bad Places".
While I found the talks of all the co-presenters powerful and engaging, I found the presentation of Jay Famiglietti profound....very, very important stuff. Dr. Famigilietti presented an overview of the 15 years of data collection and interpretation of NASA's GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment). With no fanfare or hyperbole, he simply went through the results which show conclusively, on a world scale, in an irrefutable fashion....our groundwater resources are being depleted worldwide, the depletion of groundwater resources is where we grow most of the food in the world, the ice caps are melting, and sea level is rising in an inverse manner. We all know this, more or less, but it is too easy to ignore until you see the big picture with factual support.
Dr. Famiglietti will now be a Canada 150 Research Chair in Hydrology and Remote Sensing. Great catch for Canada.
PBS/NOVA has picked up the film "The Good Nazi" for viewing on all Public Broadcasting Stations in the United States. My understanding is that NOVA, being a science documentary series, will expand the science portion a bit. In Canada, the original production of "The Good Nazi", will show on Vision One. Dates and times have yet to be announced.
The trailer is riveting! I have not seen the film, but my understanding is that the cinematography is exquisite, and the personal story lines of child survivor Sidney Handler, author Michael Good, and Major Plagge are very powerful....and some good geophysics of course.
When the sun sets tomorrow, the evening of Wednesday April 11, Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) will begin and continue until the evening of April 12. In Israel, Yom HaShoah is truly solemn, most dramatically illustrated by the 10 AM siren where everything stops for 2 minutes, and even the highways are quiet with thousands of people standing outside their vehicles in silence and pensive thought.
At 9:30 PM on April 11th in Israel, on KAN Channel 11, a movie my colleague Alastair McClymont and I worked on will premier, “The Good Nazi.” The movie will depict the war time efforts of a Nazi and Wermacht officer, Major Karl Plagge, to save Jews from the Vilna Ghetto in Lithuania by issuing them work permits to labor in the motor vehicle workshop HKP unite 562. He even had a famous list of the Jews he tried to keep alive, like Oskar Schindler's List. You will have to see the movie, though, to decide for yourself if he really was a good Nazi.
Also showing in Israel the evening of the 11th, for the first time, is the Hebrew language version of “Holocaust Escape Tunnel.” This movie will also show on NOVA l PBS, at 9 PM, on all PBS stations across the United States. Holocaust Escape Tunnel, which premiered a year ago, describes the end of Jewish life in Lithuania, the beginning of the Holocaust, and the truly unbelievable escape of the “Burning Brigade” from the Ponar extermination site.
Sponsored by Dr. Richard Freund and the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at University of Hartford, Alastair and I worked at both sites. As the movie “Holocaust Escape Tunnel” describes, at Ponar, we discovered the then near mythical escape tunnel. I have not seen “The Good Nazi” as it is premiering in Israel, but at HKP 562, we used some of our techniques honed in Colombia from “Finding Escobar’s Millions” to search for the “malinas,” or hiding places the Jews built to conceal themselves from the SS when the Germans retreated from Vilna.
At HKP 562, Alastair and I had an enthusiastic geophysics crew of Merav David from the University of Harford, Josie Bauman from Quest University Canada, Abe Gol (the son of Shlomo Gol, one of the leaders of the Ponar tunnel diggers), and Abe’s cousin Johny. I know we are all very proud to have played some part in telling these stories, and are very grateful that NOVA and Associated Producers supported the high quality production that these two movies surely manifest.
From 1986 to 2007, Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) killed about 100,000 people in Acholiland in Northern Uganda, abducted and enslaved about an equal number, and displaced 1.7 million from their villages. About 2 million people lived in 200 displaced persons camps, with the largest holding more than 50,000 Acholi. Yet in our two weeks working in approximately 25 villages all over Acholiland, we did not see a single marked mass grave, see any remaining housing structures from the camps, or see a single marker or monument memorializing the violence and terror…until we went to Atiak.
Until January 17, I had never heard of Atiak. It is in the far northwest corner of Amuru District, 30 km south of the South Sudan border. Atiak sits at the end of Acholiland before one enters into the West Nile area, an ethnically and linguistically very different area. One of the female students had done an outstanding job of organizing the community engagement for a well repair there. Two communities were contributing a substantial amount of cash toward the well repair and the exploration program. They would supply and cook for us a goat at each site. They would supply labour. And they desperately needed the water. As a few of us, including myself, were somewhat done with the long, dusty drives, I was looking for any reasonable reason not to go to Atiak. Its remoteness, though, was just one more reason why the villages near the town were good airbenders.
Atiak, itself, had been one massive camp through the last 10 years of the LRA insurrection. If one looks on Google Earth at the 2007 image, you will see thousands of tightly packed mud huts. Today, none of those camp huts remain. The town center sits at the intersection to the road to Adjumani and the South Sudanese refugee camps. I guessed that there would be at least a coffee shop to succor the many NGO workers that must drive through there on the way to the West Nile. We saw neither foreigners nor a coffee shop. But more surprising, and only 50 m from the only functioning public well, there is a concrete monument with a large plaque, and on the plaque is a very long list of names.
In April 1995, a year before the government began to place the Acholi into concentration camps, LRA rebels entered Atiak. The LRA, who themselves were Acholi, and who even had a senior commander from Atiak, accused the villagers of falsely blaming the LRA for ruthless maiming and for not supporting the LRA cause….though that cause was never quite clear. To prove the villagers wrong, and to punish them, the rebels then rounded up villagers, and students and teachers from the technical college.
The LRA segregated very young children, the elderly, and the pregnant. They shot the rest, ordering the survivors to clap and cheer the rebels on. More than 250 were killed that day, with the names from the students of the technical school being on that plaque. The Atiak massacre prompted the Government of Uganda to break off relations with Sudan, as the rebels had found some refuge across the border. This, in turn, further encouraged Sudan to support the rebels, at least for a while.
While for me, seeing the plaque was unique, the story of villagers being trapped in an untenable position between the government and the LRA was not. While Musseveni’s army was preoccupied in a faraway conflict in the Congo, the Ugandan government pushed the creation of village militias armed with bows, called the “Arrow Brigades.” They were no match for AK47s, and the LRA rebels would chop off the hands of these primitively armed farmers. Women were encouraged to blow whistles if they saw rebels in the bush; the LRA would chop off the lips of anyone who would signal their advance. The LRA would even cut off the legs of anyone seen on a bicycle as they might provide warning of an impending attack.
The work went very well in Atiak. We repaired a well that had been drilled in 1986. While trapped in the Camp until 2007, the villagers had neither the means nor the money to maintain the well. The repaired well will provide water to about 100 households (approximately 550 persons) in a cluster of villages near the town site. We geophysically sited another well in a highly prospective location, which we expect to be drilled within the next 6 weeks. Colin Miazga once again managed the exploration group that day.
All the photos are from Paul Bauman, and all are of Atiak.
November 8, 2017
Colin Miazga and I had been planning since June to do a water exploration program in the Nayapara and Leda refugee camps. In June, 2017, the population of the former was about 14,240 refugees, and of the latter, 19,230 Rohingya. But with the final round of violence beginning August 25th, Nayapara increased to 35,000 Rohingya, and Leda to 23,000 Rohingya. We moved up our start date, and expanded our crew to five. Our goal was to supplement or replace the surface water supply with a groundwater supply. We believe we have succeeded, though drilling and well testing will be the proof.
Today we moved to the Kutupalong Expansion site. Here, there are about 2000 wells, and almost every well finds water. But the wells are shallow, and largely contaminated by e. coli and other pathogens. Our goal here is to explore for deeper and better protected aquifers. Before August 25th, the refugee population of the Kutupalong Expansion Site was 99,705 Rohingya. Today, it is about 450,000. Or rather, 450,000!!!! You may have heard it or read it, but the repeated phrasing is true, people as far as the eye can see, in all directions.
We had to walk a 1.5 km obstacle course with our equipment to get into the exploration area. We hired Rohingya to carry the lighter equipment. Colin, Alastair, Chris, and Eric carried the heavy gear, including the 35 kg cable reels.
Think Chalmun’s Cantina in the pirate city of Mos Eisley of Star Wars. Think the dystopic future of Mad Max. Imagine the foothills of Nepal, but clear cut of all trees and rhododendrons, dusty, post-apocalyptic. The area was jungle, inhabited until 3 months ago by Asian elephants. Think of a city built of plastic tarps and bamboo. A dense, urban ant colony where everyone cooks with wood, and not a chimney to be seen. No wonder respiratory infections exceed water borne diseases. And though the Rohingya seem to be gentle and quiet people, the cacophony of the white noise of 450,000 people simply living is like being in a chicken coop.
Working in the camps in the south was a good warm up, so I only got choked up once in Kutupalong today, and for good reason. An elderly…very elderly woman was crossing one of the rickety bamboo bridges with a massive load of firewood balanced on her head. The Burmese army altered the demographics by removing a significant percentage of young men, leaving many elderly women and young children to fend for themselves. There was no way she was going to be able to make the large step off the bridge without stumbling or falling. I moved ahead to grab her arm and steady her. But before she could take the step, one of the 20 year old Polytechnic students transferred the entire mass of firewood off her head onto his shoulder, lowered himself from the bridge. He continued walking with the woman and her firewood to her tarped bamboo hut.
A CTV film crew had an extra day after filming Bob Rae’s visit. They spent the entire day with us, filming the march in and out, interviewing us all, capturing some fantastic footage of manually drilling a water well to 100 m depth from a bamboo drilling rig, and providing a welcome distraction to everything around us. Somehow they will boil it all down to a two minute clip likely to appear in the next few days.
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