If one bikes or runs about 9 kilometers southeast of the Old City of Riga, along the banks of the wide and slow moving Daugava River, one comes to a 200 hectare area of open field and forest, known to most as Mazjumprava Manor. It is here, amongst the ruins of the manor house and outbuildings of an 18th and 19th Century leading Riga family, that well dressed couples from Riga will come to walk their dogs, sit on a bench holding hands and kissing next to the mill pond, or bike along the river or through the open fields. It is also here in late November 1941, before the United States had even declared war on Germany, that the Nazis began transporting Jews to this same site that was known as Konzentrationslager Jungfernhof (Jungfernhof Concentration Camp).
Earlier this year, the New York-based science magazine Nautilus Magazine wrote an article about our 2019 Geoscientists Without Borders (GWB) project “Geophysical Investigations at Holocaust Sites in Lithuania and Warsaw” https://seg.org/.../Geoscientis.../Projects/detail/lithuania The article, found in the following link, https://nautil.us/.../digging-deeper-into-holocaust-history discusses our use of technology to assist in locating and mapping mass graves. Most importantly, though, the article describes why mass grave mapping matters.
Clearly the author was particularly moved by our use of soil phosphorus as an attempted proxy for identifying human burials in our determination not to physically disturb any such burials. We thank Lisa Neville at AGAT Laboratories in Calgary for their much appreciated help with the phosphorus analyses.
Colin Miazga and I, now from BGC Engineering Inc in Calgary, are back in the Baltics. We are here to carry on our pro bono work in assisting historians and archaeologists in understanding the Holocaust through continued exploration and mapping of these now seemingly featureless sites. But we are also here to make a documentary movie that defies the too often used Biblical phrase that Jews accepted their deaths “like sheep to the slaughter.” The working title of the documentary project is The Resistance Project, and the working film title is “They Fought Back.”
We flew out of Calgary the 18th of July, landed in Riga, Latvia in the afternoon of the 19th, and began our field program on the morning of the 20th at the little known Concentration Camp of Jungfernhof a short bicycle ride from the wonderful Old City of Riga, on the south bank of the Daugauva River. Primo Levi described Auschwitz as a place where “Here there is no why.” As we began today to unravel the history and landscape of Jungerfernhof, it was clearly built by the Nazis with the same spirit of insanity as were the later industrialized mass execution camps.
Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. January 27, 2020, memorializes the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp where one million Jews were murdered. Less well known, in the Baltics and other Eastern European countries, is that about 2 million Jews were shot in open air massacres. Most victims were killed before the establishment of the Nazi industrial extermination camps, and most of these slaughters occurred in small Jewish villages or shtetls that few of us have heard of and many of which no longer exist.
…Rumours of Lucy, Gbenga, and I leaving Jonglei State, and of Lucy and I being seen downing a few gin and tonics in Juba while toasting the women carriers of Haat are true, but not of us leaving South Sudan. We fly into Juba on a Wednesday, and are back in the field on Thursday and Friday in the Khor William and Lologo neighbourhoods where we carried out our one day wellfield reconnaissance survey in what seemed a lifetime ago.
After covering the neighbourhoods of Khor William and Lologo, we carry on to St. Augustine and Block 4. Of course we can drive to the sites, which now feels a bit like cheating, but allows us to accomplish a lot with a smaller crew. We hire men and women from the communities. Local community leaders, the drivers, and John and Philip from ICRC’s Juba Water Rehabilitation team also jump in to guide us through the neighbourhoods and lend a hand. We complete all the geophysical survey lines on our checklist in a week
Today was our last field day in the wetlands of the Sudd, and tonight is our last night, assuming the helicopter arrives as scheduled. You may think I will not miss waking up at night covered in soldier ants, the evening choice between sitting outside with malarial mosquitoes or cocooning in a sauna-like tent, bucket showers of swamp water while being devoured by various other biting insects, putrid pit latrines, instant coffee, 40+ degree heat and 100% humidity, unemployed young men with AK47s, “footing it” (African for trekking) through flooded wetlands, etc.
In the morning we boat 30 minutes upstream to Yaakuach. Unfortunately, it has the two types of people I am simply forbidden to photograph, and in abundance. As we approach the bordering wetlands, there are perhaps 50 or so naked boys seemingly frolicking in the wetlands. I then realize they are diving to cut and yank out marsh plants to clear a narrow canal for our two boats to enter. There is the usual large village entourage to greet us and get a good laugh when I debark and nearly do a faceplant in the mud. GBenga can pull out the dance moves to break the ice; I just need my own innate clumsiness.
“Are you a journalist?” The customs officers in the ramshackle arrival terminal in Juba, South Sudan, ransacked through our 10 bags of cables and electronics, but their only concern seemed to be my cameras. Think quick and try the truth, I thought. No country in civil war likes journalists I reasoned. “No, I am here on a mission with the International Committee of the Red Cross to provide water to villages in Jonglei State…I need photographs to document our locations for drilling.” Though I thought I did a good job hedging my bets, I chose the wrong door. I was informed that only journalists are allowed to take photographs. Fortunately, ICRC local staff showed up, and with a bit of negotiation and a few phone calls, we were on our way.
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.”
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: