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.