Breaking News-the Search for the Rabbi of Rumsiskes’ House
Our Project: Using ICEGPR-iGPR (for short) to Rediscover a Lost Jewish Village
of Rumsiskes at the bottom of Lake Kaunas and on the campus of the Rumsiskes
National Open Air Living Museum, January 15, 2019
We arrived after 15 hours of travel from Newark to Copenhagen to Vilnius to Rumsiskes on Monday, January 14 . We are staying in the museum campus in amongst the historical building s and houses, many of which were transferred here to give it an authentic feel. We have been working on this project, funded by the US Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, a US State Department commission. Planning for this was nail-biting as we waited to see if the lake that we are working on would freeze. It did. Last week and we were alreadyin the midst of planning for the summer. We are living at the open air museum and no one is here. Quite eery but good for us.They gave us a house and our hosts, the Mayor of the region and the Museum are also supplying logistical support and breakfast, lunch and dinner.
We created a lab where we basically assembled from boxes of equipment, a GPR (ground penetrating radar) device on sleds that would survey the lake to find the lost village under the ice. iGPR (for short).
And the dorms are like we are back in the time of the old villages that we are researching (but with heat, showers, towels, electricity and internet!)
We are here to help the museum and they have pulled out all of the stops to make our visit successful. The National Living Museum is like Williamsburg or Sturbridge village. All of theliving museum town is made up of buildings and actors dressed in 19th century garb and they recreated the industries, food, life for visitors from Lithuania and abroad to come and enjoy. Schools come for retreats for a weekend with teachers and it is a major educational vehicle. The open air museum’s attitude toward the town’s (and the country’s) Jewish heritage is in marked contrast to an intricate indoor miniature model of old Jewish Rumšiškės made by Vytautas Markevičius, which meticulously includes the town’s Jewish sites and addresses in a spirit of historical accuracy and multicultural inclusiveness. That model is housed in the town’s Jonas Aistis Museum. There are no formal exhibitions on the National Museum’s campus to its Jews and our part of our work is to help document and perhaps display at the Museum some of the local culture and to teach about how science can help preserve and document the history of a location even when the local population has changed.
History of the Jewish Village of Rumshishok
The late medieval village of Rumsiskes included a Jewish shtetl [shtetl is the Yiddish word for village] Rumshishok. The Jewish shtetl that represented as much as 40% of the population of the larger village and it had a significant Jewish life but was a small rural village. This was the life of the shtetl: that it could be sparsely populated but which included all of the makings of a larger Jewish city and usually was adjacent to or a part of a larger village of non-Jews. Each shtetl of this size generally had a synagogue, a bathhouse, a Jewish cemetery, and a Jewish school or Bet Midrash or study house like Jewish Rumsiskes.
The shtetl-life was made famous in the Shalom Aleichem story, Tevye the Dairyman (Tevye der milkhiker in Yiddish) and Tevye is the fictional narrator and protagonist of a series of short stories first published in 1894. The character is best known today because of the adaptation into the popular play: Fiddler on the Roof. You could say that we are looking for Tevye’s shtetl under the lake.
While nostalgia makes this a beautiful if rustic place the reality of the shtetl was brutal. Small quarters, often dirt floors, outhouses, sun-up to sundown subsistence farming and grazing of animals. And religious life was difficult often requiring people to leave their homes to go to places for major holidays. There was a charm. Intimacy and hardworking and caring and compassion out of necessity. As we settled into the house built in the 19th century which would be our research base of operations and the students settled in.We had dinner with the mayor and the Head of the Museum for last night. When we got here yesterday we all went out to the lake to see if it was indeed frozen enough. One hour on the ice to prove to ourselves that it was able to handle the weight of the researchers, the equipment and the filming team.
The technology: Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR)
When the transmitter antennae sends electromagnetic (EM) waves into the ground (1) the waves reflect off underground layers which are collected by the receiver antenna (2). Information travels to a computer (3) via fiber-optic cables (4). The computer then displays the data in real time.
By using GPR in the winter, one can set an exact course across the lake for GPR investigation. The line has been marked by flags on the ice the course is then recorded using the GPS for later reference. The GPR is then attached to a toboggan using shipping Velcro to secure the GPR. When collecting data the GPR is slowly dragged along the given path at a constant speed. The data from the GPR is recorded onto a small laptop computer in the field.
Breaking News! The lake was frozen solid by a sudden sub-zero night so…
On the lake today we began with the map that Prof Reeder created from Google earth of the present contours of the lake and the 1944 photograph take by the Nazis. The ice is between 5-10 cm and the GPR cannot touch the ice but with a 150 Mhz antenna, first (looks down not as deep but with greater detail, and then later today we will use a 50 Mhzantenna(looks deeper but not as detailed)-we will start the search with the Rabbi’s house. The key was to wait to have enough ice for us to walk on and not have a snowstorm for us to work on this project! We got both.
What are we looking for?
First, you have to know that the Jewish Rumsiskes shtetl is under water because the Soviets decided to build a dam near the village of Rumsiskes after WWII and decided that since the Jews had died in the Holocaust there was no reason to keep their part of the village around. They basically inundated part of the city including the Jewish shtetl and we are looking for what is left of the Jewish village and any other part of the rest of Rumsiskes that might appear nearby. The Jewish cemetery is also a good target because the memorial stones are supposed to still be there at the bottom of the lake in their original places. This should be a rather large series of anomalies all gathered in order under the lake 15 feet below the surface. The ancient Jewish cemetery of Rumshishok-the Yiddish name for Rumsiskes, Lithuania [thought to be at least 100-200 years old] the graves were apparently disinterred and the remains transferred in 1958 to Kaunas Aleksota Cemetery, just prior to the flooding of the region by the Soviets in 1959. Prior to the flooding of the old town, every grave from the Jewish cemetery in Rumshishok was dug up and the remains moved to the Rumshishok section of Kovno Jewish cemetery. The Soviets, however, prevented the relocation of the headstones so the mass burial was facilitated. This means that there are literally scores of memorial stones that would be easily located under the water. That is the primary target of our work in January, 2019. Holocaust victims’ remains also were apparently also removed from the mass grave in the Rumshishok ravine on the campus of the Living Museum and reburied in the same Jewish cemetery in Kovno. The result is one well-maintained mass grave about 50 feet by 30 feet dedicated to Rumshishok.
Led by their intrepid leader:
Kyle Conti filming and Justin Lockhart mapping with Prof Reeder:
Stay tuned to see what we find.
More photos of this adventure: