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.
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.