On June 24th, Leslie and I drove from Riga to Vilnius (Vilna in Yiddish). All over the Old City of Vilnius were posters saying in Lithuanian, as translated to me by a waiter in our favorite restaurant Aline, "remember the tragic events," as June 24 was the 75th anniversary of the Nazi conquest of Vilnius. It was an appropriate day to remember the 100,000 victims and 70,000 Jews killed in Ponar.
While carrying out surveys over the Burning Brigade escape tunnel, the Pit 1 mass murder site, and the processing trench, our minds were largely focused on our work, on getting electric current into the ground, on properly mapping our lines, on photographing the field work, and on in-field processing and quality control. On the evening of June 24th, we focused on the real reason we were all in Lithuania and Ponar. Dr. Richard Freund from the University of Hartford, and Dr. Jon Seligman from the Israel Antiquities Authority lead us through a memorial service for the 100,000 victims of German and Lithuanian mass murder in the forest of Ponar. Present were the Israeli and American volunteer excavators working at the Great Synagogue in Vilnius, the WGBH NOVA film crew including the Executive Producer Paula Apsell who flew in that day - 8 Israelis, 10 Americans, 2 Canadians. We gathered in a circle in front of a memorial monument erected 25 years earlier by Israelis from Tel Aviv, likely shortly after Lithuanian independence.
Jon Seligman opened the ceremony by reminding us of the history and the facts. I was very honored, along with Mika, an Israeli excavator who was also the granddaughter of a survivor of the Vilna Ghetto, to light one of the 2 Yahrtzeit candles, special long burning candles lit to memorialize the dead. An Israeli excavator, Valda, read "Shtiler, Shtiler," or "Hush, Hush." This was a lullably and award winning song in a Judenrat Ghetto competition of 1943 with the melody written by a 13 year old and already brilliant musician, Alex Volkoviski. The words were written by the Ghetto poet Kaczerginski. Jon Seligman translated the song into English from the original Yiddish, and then played it to music from a CD...."there are roads that lead to Ponar, There are no roads back. Hush, my child, don't cry, my darling..." It was fortunate the CD was playing as noone could sing or speak through our tears. As the music continued, a train could be heard slowly approaching from the distance, becoming louder as it passed near where the Ponar rail siding once stood to unload its doomed human cargo. Miraculously, Volkoviski and his mother survived the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, only to be sent to a concentration camp. Volkoviski nevertheless survived the war to become a pianist in Israel.
Another Israeli did a moving reading of Zog Nit Kein Mol, the Jewish Partisan Song. Hirsh Glick, also a prisoner of the Vilna Ghetto, was inspired to write this song when news of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising reached Vilna in 1943. It was the song the Jewish partisans sang when they reentered Vilna in 1944, though the reading and the version we heard on CD did not carry the ambiance of defiance as is usually heard in other settings. Some of the Israelis and Americans knew the Yiddish words and sang along. Finally, Richard Freund recited the ancient Jewish prayer for the dead, the Kaddish, which, in fact, does not mention death, but reaffirms the value of life, justice, and peace.
After the ceremony, Leslie and I walked the grounds of Ponar, much of which I had not seen as I had been so focused on our particular areas of work. We spoke with Mika about the daring escape of her maternal grandfather from the hospital and a certain appointment with death at Ponar. In the evening we went to services at the Choral Synagogue, the only functioning synagogue left in Vilna (there were 105 in 1941..140 if you include Jewish study halls, Beit Midrash, Cloison, etc. The Canadians and Americans met that evening for an outside dinner and talking long into the evening, though we sorely missed our Israeli excavator friends.
How often does one get a chance to meet one's heroes, especially years after their deaths! Last Thursday, kilometers outside of Vilnius, in the darkest and most spooky of Baltic forests, some time between midnight and 2 AM, running through the forest with gun shots ringing among the trees, I met Szolma Gol, Isaac Dogim, Yudi Faber (aka Farber, aka Farberis). I feel I know them all a bit as I have read portions of the testimonies from the tunnel escape from Pit 6 in Poneriai, or as best as one can read a Google translation of Russian. All were of the Burning Brigade, and all were supermen and superwomen (there were 4 women in the Burning Brigade) living off of bread crusts and potato porridge blended with straw and ice and mud. Gol's testimony is particularly memorable as he was a body counter, a required bit of bookkeeping of the SS at Poneriai as the Burning Brigade removed an estimated 68,000 corpses and burnt them to ashes in pyramids of thousands of bodies and logs. Gol committed to the escape when he found the body of his brother, recognizing the identity card. Dogim, along with Faber, was one of the masterminds. Dogim stumbled on his wife's corpse which he recognized by a medallion, along with the bodies of his mother and two sisters. At that point, he realized he had nothing left to live for, but no reason to worry about dying.
Faber's testimony is particularly moving. Captured in the Soviet Army in the fall of 1941, he and 8000 Red Army comrades endured horrific conditions as prisoners of war near Vilnius. He recounts how 50 or more would die daily from typhus or cold or starvation. Recognized as a Jew, Faber was sent to Poneriai as part of the Burning Brigade. Faber describes in detail the living conditions and the work, but he never shows any indication that he doubted he would get out alive, even after working all day with the dead. He engineered the tunneling, chose the directions and angles, designed the supports, wired in electricity for light, organized the escapees on that final dark night of April 15th, cut the wire fences, hung a white rag to guide the others through the gap, pulled the escapees who could not swim across the river, and finally a week later told his story to Abba Kovner and the Jewish partisans with whom he connected.
Very, very early Friday morning, June 17, NOVA filmed a reenactment of the tunnel escape. Even though each episode required a few takes, the long evening only made the excitement build. As in real life, not all the actors made it through the night alive. I cannot imagine how those many hours of drama will be distilled into a few minutes. I can already highly recommend the movie!
Last week we had a progress meeting at the Tolerance Center of the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum, chaired by Jasa Markas Zingeris, the Director of the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum. The Assistant Director, Zigmas Vitkas, who has been overseeing our work at Poneriai and the Great Synagogue site, Kirk Wolfinger who is the executive director for the NOVA documentary being filmed, the director of the movie Owen Palmquist, Richard Freund from the University of Hartford, Jon Seligman from the Israel Antiquities Authority, Leslie Gotfrit, and of course Alastair McClymont and myself were there.
The museum is beautiful and well done, the conference room overlooks the City, and good coffee was served as always here in Lithuania. The gallery adjoining the conference room is introduced by a very moving Samuel Bak painting of the Vilna Ghetto. Bak, who was born in 1933 and only 9 when the Ghetto was closed off, survived the war and emigrated in 1948. Also in the gallery are the doors of the Holy Ark that held the Torah scrolls in the Vilnius Synagogue until its destruction in the war. The doors were recovered and hidden by Jews returning to Vilnius in 1944 or 1945.
The meeting progressed as one would expect. Our results were quickly summarized, and then the discussions ensued on what to excavate and who and how and when, how to display, how to preserve, and of course about the NOVA documentary, which will likely premier in 2017. It is very likely that archaeological excavations will follow up our geophysics, with the work to be led by the cultural ministry and supported by Israeli and American archaeologists and historians.
A small excavation is likely to occur this week at the Great Synagogue in the center of Vilnius, beneath one of our geophysical surveys. Leslie and I are hoping to sneak a peak after returning to Vilnius on Friday after a week of traveling in Lithuania and Latvia, and maybe get a few more bird's eye views of Vilnius from the drone.
As we are approaching the last few days of our project here in Lithuania, we have been cutting back a bit on the late night processing and archiving of data, and spending a bit more of the extra long hours of the dusk wandering the streets of this very beautiful city. We even managed to visit a small bar that we have been passing every day on our way to Ponary, but had never had the time to peak inside. We have been regularly sampling the local beers in Vilnius, which are superb, but this was our first chance to try a favorite Lithuanian herbal liquer, Devynia 999, and it was quite good.
We saw neither Putin nor Trump, but apparently they did collaborate on a mural, and even left a graffiti message on the wall..."Make everything great again."
More than 6 months before Adolf Eichmann, Reinhard Heydrich, and other SS and Nazi government officials met in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee on January 20, 1942, to formulate the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question," the Polish journalist Sakowicz was already witnessing and secretly documenting the extermination of the Jews of Lithuania in the forest of Ponary. Besides likely being the largest of the killing pits, Soviet Plan Pit 1 (as we call it) was also the first pit, it is believed, to be used as a mass murder site at Ponary. On Sunday and Monday, June 12 and 13, Alastair and I felt we had mapped in Pit 1 to a sufficient extent where the archaeologists could be confident of its size and location, and so the the Poneriai Memorial could properly protect the area.
Excavations in any of the killing pits, even for forensic studies, will not happen. Yet, one goal of the historians and archaeologists working at Ponary, and at other Holocaust sites, is to give identities and even names to the victims. At Pit 1, the Nazis expanded the trenches originally built by the Russians to route fuel oil from the tanks. In their experiments to efficiently handle and execute as many people as fast as possible, the Nazis first used these trenches to funnel the victims into these killing pits. On Tuesday and Wednesday, we used topographic mapping from drones, a 1942 hand drawn German map of Pit 1, a German air photo shot by German intelligence over Poneriai during the 1944 Battle of Vilnius, visual observation,and more geophysics to pinpoint the axes of the trenches, specifically, the trench leading to Pit 1. We were hoping to identify bits of metal in the trenches that could direct the archaeologists to dig where, as the victims approached the gun shots that they could surely hear (but not see, as they were marched shirtless into the pits with their tops wrapped around their heads) in front of them, they disposed of their last and most treasured personal possessions of watches, jewelry, house keys, personal momentos, etc.... and along with these, perhaps identity cards, photographs, letters, and other records of the moment.
We do have targets along the trench leading to Pit 1, and at the proper depth that would place these bits of metal on the floor of the trench. What exactly these objects are, and what other artifacts may they be associated with, will have to wait until some future archaeological excavation work.
Now that I am a bit more familiar with the streets of this beautiful city of Vilnius, I realize that the fire very near our hotel, behind the All Saints' Church, was on the street, and within a few meters of the main gate to the Vilna Ghetto. In September 1941, when the Jews of Vilna (Vilnius) were confined by the Nazis to a small area in what had previously been the Jewish Quarter, Jews accounted for an estimated 40% of the population of the City. In fact, the Polish and Yiddish speaking population of Vilnius was the majority, and Lithuanian speakers were a small minority in 1941. The Jewish population was confined to the Ghetto for 2 years, from September 1941 to September 1943.
The Ghetto population peaked at about 40,000, with most of the inhabitants being sent to their deaths in Poneray where they were shot 10 at a time, or machine gunned if the executioners were in a hurry, or blown up with a grenade if there were not enough executioners for the task. When the Ghetto was liquidated in 1943, there were no surviving Jews in the Ghetto. A few hundred had escaped to join the partisans. Of course, part of the notion of placing the Jewish population in the ghetto was to cut off any knowledge of what was happening outside the Ghetto walls, including at Poneray, and to prevent mass resistance...hence, part of the source of the controversy surrounding the Jewish Ghetto leader Jacob Gens.
Despite the size of the fire on Tuesday, only one building was destroyed. The All Saints' Church appeared undamaged, and a typically relaxed street scene at the Church corner carried on the next evening.
We spent Thursday morning, June 9, continuing our search for the escape tunnel. Everyone familiar with Paneriai (Poneray) has a different notion in which direction the Burners' Brigade built the tunnel. Ken Bensimon (with beard on left), an architect who designed prisons so as to prevent tunnel escapes, did the background research to direct us to the proper quadrant, or so he thought. Jurijus Greismanas (with hat on right), one of the two curators of Paneriai, believes Ken is at least 90 degrees off. Every tour guide that comes through, of course, has a different idea, or states that no one knows. One person that did know was another Jurijus, Jurijus Farber (soldier in uniform on left), a Russian engineer whose idea it was to escape through a tunnel. For such a demanding infrastructure project in a low budget environment, Farber reportedly had a skill far more useful than being an engineer...he was a thief. Farber died in 1983 at the age of 75.
The picture below shows Pit 6 in 1942. The Burners' Brigade lived in the pit beginning in the second half of 1943. Not only was the pit surrounded by two barbed wire fences and a mine field, but it was guarded day and night by 80 soldiers.
If the tunnel location was known, Dr. Alastair McClymont and I would not be looking for the escape route. Our approach is simple. We slice up the site with geophysical surveys, map the anomalies with GPS and drones, and hope that the dots connect in a line leading back to Pit 6. The main technique we are using is electrical resistivity tomography. If the tunnel is open and air filled, we would expect the tunnel to appear very electrically resistive. If the tunnel were acting like a drain, collecting and trapping infiltrating water, the tunnel would appear more electrically conductive than the surrounding sands. Of course, this may be easier said than done as the tunnel is now likely filled with sand, and a sand filled tunnel in a sand filled glacial outwash plain is never an easy target. And the tunnel was very small, and may be 9 m in depth or greater. But we do know a bit more now, on day 3 than we did on day 1.
Saturday, June 11, we carried on with our tunnel "detection," or at least tunnel hunting, as I still cannot say too much about this effort until the official press release. The weather on Saturday fit well with the history of the site, very cold and raining. The film crew, Alastair, and I were alone at the site. It is inconceivable how even 12 of the Burning Brigade (11 joined the partisans and survived until the end of the war) escaped as the forest is dense, the escapees were malnourished, the night was black, and the surrounding population was unsympathetic and even hostile to the victims and the shackled Brigade. Even language would have been a challenge as more than 90% of the population of Vilnius then spoke Polish or Yiddish, with less than 5% of the people in the City speaking Lithuanian as spoken in the nearby village.
Unique to Poneray amongst all the extermination sites in Europe, we have a dispassionate, day-by-day diary of observations from 1941 to 1943, from a Polish journalist, Kazimierz Sakowicz. The Ponary Diary. Sakowicz was a journalist and print shop owner in Vilnius until 1939. As a result of the Soviet occupation, he closed his print shop, and moved to a small cottage in the Ponary forest, commuting by bicyle to Vilnius to find any small jobs he could to support his family. On July 11, 1941, the first day of the executions, he heard gunfire in the woods. From then until his being shot in 1944, he observed and recorded the daily details of mass murder - who were the victims, who were the perpetrators, when, how, etc.-all in a scientific, unemotional, and even non-judgemental manner. His notes were hidden in lemonade bottles, and then buried, with the finding and publishing of the Diary first in Polish in 1999, and later in English in 2005, being a drama of its own.
But even with the Diary, the Soviet investigations immediately following the war, testimonies form escapees, Germans, LIthuanian villagers, previous geophysical surveys, remote sensing, ground based LiDAR surveys, and more, there is still much uncertainty as to how many victims perished in Poneray, in how many pits are they buried, and where are the pits. On Sunday and Monday, Alastair and I carried out surveys trying to locate and pinpoint what is probably the largest of the pits, what we call Soviet Plan Pit 1, referring to the designation on the original Soviet design for fuel or oil storage tanks.
Hunting for such a big pit, likely 30 or so meters across, in a relatively small area, would seem simple. We started with the 1944 German air photo, but it is not georeferenced and it shows a much larger clearing than the pit itself. Available LiDAR - laser scanning - data that show the microrelief and can see through the canopy was very useful, but the soil piles and berms directed us only to the general area of the pit. LiDAR cannot pinpoint the location as the LiDAR provides no subsurface information. Alastair did a scout with our ground penetrating radar system, covering a few kilometers of line distance. We did a 120 m tomography survey and sliced across a portion of the pit on Saturday. Sunday we did a few more slices over the Pit, and we now believe we have definitively mapped it.
Carrying out surveys in the Rasu Prison was unique, and in the forest of Poneriai was and is (we are not yet done) moving, but carrying out surveys in the very center of this vibrant and historic City is, well, a culinary challenge, as there are so many fine restaurants and coffee shops within a few hundred meters to distract us from our duties.
The Jewish community and its synagogues in Vilnius date back perhaps to the 1490s, but certainly to the latter 1500s. Though there were more than 100 synagogues at the beginning of World War II, the epicenter of Jewish spiritual life in Vilnius was the Great Synagogue. It was largely destroyed by the Nazis in World War II, and with no surviving Jewish community in Vilnius, what was left of the Great Synagogue deteriorated after the War, with the Soviets demolishing the remaining structures - or so they thought - and building a school and playground on site.
Because the Synagogue could not be built taller than the Vilnius churches, as the Synagogue expanded in the 19th and early 20th Century, it was built downward, supposedly down three floors. Now, a joint endeavor of American, Israeli, and Lithuanian archaeologists want to excavate, preserve, and memorialize the Synagogue as a project to commemorate the history of the Jewish community in Vilinius. Alastair and I are trying to use geophysical surveys to assist in guiding the initial phase of excavations.
I have not had time to form my own opinion of this very sensitive project, and we certainly will not have time to investigate more than a few small portions of the site. But by flying a drone directly over the Great Synagogue, looking directly down at the school and playground sitting on the Synagogue footprint, and photographing the old world architecture of Vilnius with the Synagogue clearly sitting in the center, one immediately appreciates that the Great Synagogue, even without the iconic structure, remains present as the geographic heart of Vilnius.
There are few, if any stories of greater human desperation or human courage and resilience...certainly not in fiction, nor even in the nightmarish death camps of Sobibor, Treblinka, and Belzec. As one drives 10 km or so southwest of Vilnius, if one does not blink, you might see a white road sign with black lettering pointing to Panerai (Poneray). Follow the sign and a heavily damaged road past a Lithuanian village and along a rail siding. Eventually one comes to a beautiful but haunted forest, and a small house that is the museum for this mass extermination site. The museum is one small room that narrates the extermination of Lithuanian Jewry in the pits at Poneray.
In 1939, the Russian Army constructed 10 or so massive pits, up to 42 m across and 6 m or more deep, for installing large jet fuel storage tanks. In 1941, the Nazis attacked Russia, quickly pushed the Russians out of Lithuania, and began to use these giant tank foundations in there experiments on how to most efficiently exterminate an entire population. From 1941 to 1944, approximately 100,000 people, including 70,000 Jews (45%) of the entire population of Vilnius, and 30,000 Polish partisans, Russian officers, Catholic priests, and others, were executed by a bullet to the back of the head for adults, and an even more violent death for children. The bodies were disposed of in the tank foundations, with one pit alone containing 25,000 bodies.
By 1943, it was clear the war was turning against the Nazis. As in Sobibor and elsewhere, the senior Nazi command ordered the evidence to be erased. In 1944, the SS established a "Burning Brigade" to exhume the 100,000 bodies and burn them to ash. In the museum (and below) is a photograph of a ladder the brigade used to stack bodies and wood into a pyramid. A smaller replica of this ladder sits in Pit 6 where the burning brigade, between 80 and 100 Jews, lived.
The stone wall of Pit 6 was 4 m high. The workers were shackled at the ankles, intensively guarded, lived under the constant threat of death, and labored all day at the most grisly of tasks. And they knew, once their task was completed, they too would be killed. As such, against any possible chance of success, a small group of workers decided to tunnel out to freedom. Behind a false storage closet, for 76 nights, after working all day hauling and burning decomposing corpses, this small group of workers tunneled under the stone wall that was deeply incised to prevent any escape, they built supports to keep the dry sand from collapsing onto their 60 cm X 70 cm culvert, they detoured their tunnel away from other pits of corpses, they wired in a light bulb when their single candle would burn what little oxygen they had, and meanwhile roof collapses of the soft sand did occur. On April 13th they punched through the ground surface 32 m away from their starting point. On April 15th, at 9:30, all 100 or so workers made their break. It was Passover, the Jewish holiday of freedom.
They had hidden various tools they had found among the corpses to aid their break. Files were used to break the ankle shackles, pliers to cut the barbed wire fence. A compass for travel out of the dense woods. The cut shackles and breaking branches made a noise. Gun fire broke out. There was not one barbed wire fence, but two! And then a minefield that none of the workers knew of. Dogs. Machine gun fire. Trucks with more soldiers. Many were shot or blown up in the minefield. Some made it to the river where they could float downstream and evade the dogs. 11 survived to fight with the partisans, and live until the end of the war. The last of the survivors died 3 years ago.
Tuesday and Wednesday, June 8 and 9, Alastair and I, guided by Dr. Richard Freund from the University of Hartford, and Ken Ben Simon, have been using geophysics to locate other unexcavated pits, and most importantly, to find the tunnel. NOVA, the acclaimed documentary film maker, has been documenting our progress...and we have had great progress! We have been using ground penetrating radar and electrical resistivity tomography to "see" under the ground. We have been flying a drone over our various areas (but under the tree canopy!) to create photographic basemaps to overlay our geophysical results. Eric Johnson, back in Calgary, has stitched together our hundreds of drone photographs, and created micro-relief maps that we hope will show subtle changes in relief due to, for instance, settlement in a pit or collapse along a tunnel path.
We have some results...but we have been asked to keep things a bit quiet until an official announcement. You will be second to hear it all here.