In the beginning there was a Jewish shtetl (rural village) in Lithuania that caught our interest thanks to a public showing of the documentary, “The Good Nazi” at the Tolerance Center. Elliot Matz came to speak about building a project at the National Living Museum of Rumsiskes. He came up to me after the screening of the film and said: “I have a project.”
We usually only look for buildings.
Jewish institutions in a village but in this case, Elliot Matz, was trying to find his ancestral village.
So we were looking for one lost village. This shtetl, Rumsheshok is like thousands of small Jewish villages in Eastern Europe with a slight twist. It had a city center, a bathhouse, a rabbi’s house a synagogue and a cemetery. This one that we were searching for was called, Rumsheshok, and it had been in central Lithuania with a population of 496 individuals and perhaps only 50 families in the early 20th century. They lived in close proximity to their non-Jewish neighbors until 1941. Then everything changed.
Today the village sits under a man-made lagoon or lake called Lake Kaunas. These are the takes from the Lagoon.
Our Projects always begin with equipment and specialists.
Mostly our work involves noninvasive geoscience to decide whether a full archaeological treatment is justified. Our group has now done 45 sites in five countries.
July 7th- 3 pm we picked up our diving gear from the diving school in Vilnius.
At 5 pm we arrived at the Rumsiskes Center where our host for January and July, the Rumsiskes leader Giedrius Dekaminavičius met us and took us to our house on the campus of the museum.
At 7 pm we all met together, 20 people two filming teams, four teams of staff and students for the first time! Canadians, US and Lithuanians for dinner.
July 8 8:30 am
Three boats, two divers, one sidescan sonar…
On a cool 48 degree Fahrenheit day with rain off and on in the area next to the artificial lake of Kaunas—we began our work to find the lost Jewish village.
Five vehicles, packed to the gills with technology, staff, and students pulled up to the makeshift dock area and unloaded.
Many of the team had arrived last night from Canada and we enjoyed an evening together discussing the work at a Kaunas restaurant.
People often and ask me when we are teaching during our field work. The answer is: every single moment of the work abroad and students do truly independent thinking and working and ask when they want to know something. This is hands on education the way it was meant to be done.
We stayed in a small farmhouse on the campus of the national living museum in a dorm like setting where we set the students establishing a lab when we got in on July 7.
On the morning of July 8 we arrived and stood around a small memorial set up only a few years ago to symbolize where it is supposed the mass burial site is located.
Here are our 2018 students at the same site when we did our original site survey.
I gave everyone a talk about the three projects we would be doing here in the next two days. A mass burial grid with GPR, a sonar and diving project and a search for a new museum site.
Each student identified him/herself as did the staff of geographers and Geoscientists and I pointed to the area where they stood and told them we were on or near a mass burial and we needed to confirm if indeed the 1941 site was still there and if so if it appeared that there were still bodies in the ground.
When the boats finally left with Paul Bauman, Alastair McClymont and Chris Slater aboard a speed boat with the side scan sonar, a boat to film the work and a boat for lead diver Ross Hill. It was 11:30 am.
The divers waited and the skies threatened rain the whole day. It started to rain in earnest at 1 pm. We continued.
The sidescan needed to establish GPS locations for the dive sites and we decided to coordinate the time stamps of the sonar the time stamps of the GPS since the sonar’s GPS was not functioning properly and we needed the GPS h and to establish the location of the diving sites the reason why we knew we needed only 2 days was because we had been to the Lake in January and done GPR on the frozen ice and determined the village’s general location.
We have Colin Miazga using a drone today to to do a photogrammetry of the entire lake.
We had a drone flying throughout the work.
That white speck in the center was our drone taking off!
But it is the sonar that did the work and here is the speedboat with three geophysicists riding along.
Harry Jol and his students ran grids with GPR at the mass burial site. Up above the lake. In 1941 this is where the Jews of Rumsheshok were murdered and their burial was some two miles from the center of the village.
The theory of the sonar is quite simple. Bouncing acoustic waves from a torpedo like device under the water to establish photography like features for the bottom of the lagoon was our goal and it worked!
The star of our work is a bearded, long haired master diver from Massachusetts, Ross Hill, who has the distinction of being the great-great grandson of Jews from the village that is now underwater. Imagine a person returning to search for his ancestral home. It is a universal experience for everyone- especially from an immigrant nation like the USA. The only difference is for Ross his ancestral home is at the bottom of a lagoon, But his is a true “tale from the Lithuanian lagoon” but the science is also a tale as well. It was a great tribute to his family ( who came for his dive) to find the remains of an ancestral home and to have a native son look for the village but also an attempt to document what was left of the village for others who could not make the journey.
What also made it significant was that we were doing this on the campus of Lithuania’s national living museum, the flagship of the country’s presentation of historical Lithuania and in the campus was a murder scene and a lost city. I am well known for funding lost cities so I proper to do the project for the national living museum in 2019 in between our work at the Great Synagogue and Fort 9.
The entrance to the living museum
This is an entrance to the 432 acre massive living museum of Lithuania located near the highway between Vilnius and Kaunas. Our other project is there. The open air museum was established in the Soviet period in 1966 and fully opened in 1974. Updates to the site have been done in the period since the Lithuanian sovereignty and it is one of the largest such ethnographic museums in Europe. Its official name is Lietuvos liaudies buities muziejus which can be translated Lithuanian Folk Life Museum. Its own English signs call it the “Open Air Museum” and it has also been known as the Museum of Rumšiškės. I have been working with the Lithuanians on this project since spring, 2018. I have been invited by the district mayor, the general community and municipality to do this work.
We are here to help the museum and we are doing it at the invitation of the Mayor of the region..Mr. Elliot Matz of New York is spearheading a campaign to do this work. His family came from Rumshishok and his family will be joining our teams and his nephew, Ross Hill will be the lead diver to look for the city remains. There are three different teams filming this project. The Coty and Museum of Rumsiskes has a film team that has been with us since we started our preparations a they will telling the story from the Lithuanian side and including interviews with local people who still remember the Jewish village of Rumsheshok. We have a French videographer who has been filming a documentary about the Great Synagogue, Loic Salfati and has helped us document the January work and now at the dive site.
But finally this will be a University of Hartford School of Communications project spearheaded by Kyle Conti, Travis Girourard and Rebecca Chien for the preparation of a “Tales from the Lagoon” film of their own with footage that the Loval filmmakers will share with them!
So what did we find?
The sonar showed that there were indeed the foundations of the building, structures, Wells, streets and parts of homes still on the bottom of the lake.
But even when you find things non invasively you need to ”truth test” whether these are indeed what they appear to be on a computer screen plus it was not enough for us to just accept the result without a peek at the site.
The divers, Ross Hill and geophysicist Paul Bauman went down for their first dive at 3 pm on July 8 and they said they said they felt the structures with their feet but the visibility made it difficult to do very much to photograph.
So they came back with the boat and we sent the boat out again at 4:30 pm with the side scan sonar to image the lake bottom in a very concentrated way. They will dive again tomorrow .