Fort Nine: Why Artifacts and On the Ground Testing matter!

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This is a picture of the round up of the Jews of Kaunas (Kovno in Yiddish) on October 29, 1941.

The artifacts at Fort 9 constitute a direct connection with the people that came before us. Most artifacts are displayed in museums and we pass by them in a museum never actually connecting together the inanimate artifacts with real life.

Forte9The possibility of understanding a major killing site like Fort 9 from an investigation of the site and its artifacts is difficult. This is a forensic investigation where the crime scene has been preserved as well as the evidence in a museum. The items we examined today resemble daily small finds at any archaeological site. It is the sheer numbers of the same types of artifacts which reflects the horror behind the daily wear. Fort 9 is intimately connected with the Jews of Kaunas (Kovno in Yiddish) and if Vilna was the “Oxford” of intellectual Jewish life of Lithuania, Kovno was the “Cambridge” of Lithuania.

The Holocaust arguably began in Lithuania with the Nazi onslaught in June, 1941, when they chased their Soviet partners out and the Nazis pitted the local population against their Jewish neighbors.

The Kovno ghetto was formed as a ghetto<https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghetto> to kaunasghettoconcentrate the 30,000 or do Jews of the area into one area. It was established by the Nazis to hold the Lithuanian Jews<https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lithuanian_Jews> of Kaunas<https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaunas> during the Holocaust<https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Holocaust>. The Ninth Fort was the largest and the closest of the nine protecting forts of Kaunas to the suburbs (Slobodka) where the Ghetto was formed. It was the latest one finished and a technological wonder if the time since it was built out of concrete and the others out of brick. The Nazis used this convenient site as a killing field. The Jews could easily be marched to Fort 9 from the Ghetto where they could easily be exterminated by local Lithuanian Nazi collaborators just outside the prying eyes of sympathetic Lithuanian non-Jews in the city. About 500 Jews escaped from the work details and directly from the Ghetto, and joined partisans.  They provided testimonies about what happened there. The most famous group of escapees will be in my next update and they were 64 (60 Jewish men and 4 women) who were members of the infamous Jewish”burning brigade” brought in by the Nazis to destroy the evidence of the crimes against humanity. They knew they would be the last victims and on Christmas Eve and December 25, 1943 they all escaped through a tunnel, went over the wall and disappeared. A massive manhunt by the Nazis became Lithuanian news for a time and even got into the newspapers. We are pretty sure that they inspired the Jews of Ponar (also brought to burn the bodies)  who escaped through their own tunnel on April 15, 1944.that was our 2016 project filmed by NOVA.

Our research group in 2019 included: Three vans 15 geoscience staff, multiple new geoscience technologies,  students and one massive site. We had done the sites already with preliminary scans in 2017 and determined that much more needed to be done. Equipment included multiple drones equipped with various devices and EM 38 and 61 devices.  We will also get better data with the Bartington 601-2 -state of the art-which we have never used before at Fort 9 and the GPR work will be fine with a single new device which is different than the device used in 2017..

We are working with the leadership of Fort 9 to solve some of the mysteries of the mass burials there. Today we worked on artifacts, did GPR and ERT over the burials, filmed drone multispectral photogrammetry images, and even started a cutting edge chemical analysis of the soil and vegetation that reveals where the bodies are still buried below the earth-all without disturbing the burials below.

Let me start with some of the artifacts we worked with from the Soviet excavations of 1958-1971. We have the excavations original notes.

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The thousands and thousands of metal buttons from jackets and shirts and pants that Art3remain long after the burning of the bodies form a special category because some have symbols or designs. Some are patriotic Lithuanian national symbols.

That would indicate that these Jews were marched to their deaths as proud Lithuanians.

Art4But we do have jacket buttons that have Hebrew /Yiddish lettering

We have the glasses, combs, tweezers. And even a child’s shoe all from the burial pits.

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Why Keys are Important-hundreds of keys were found in the excavations of the pits.

Art6We have an idea why.
Jews who left their homes in Spain in 1492 during the expulsion often took their keys with the thought that they would return to reclaim their property.

The keys to their homes and the small keys to unlock their luggage is especially poignant since they perhaps came to Fort 9 with their belongings as the were marched from the Ghetto of Kovno to Fort 9. They kept their keys thinking perhaps that they were being brought to the Fort to prepare them for resettlement. Bringing personal items (combs and tweezers) especially grooming items give one the sense of their unsuspecting nature. A person heirloom like a special pocket watch a locket and even small personal items indicate they felt that they would ultimately want to have these items in their next home.

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I end this update with one very poignant discovery. Many had passports and travel documents when they went to Fort 9 on On October 29.

“Real”people’s stunning last moments captured in a photo. The passports sometimes included photographs and fingerprints and most were buried with the Jews of Kovno-perhaps in that first group of nearly 10,000 Person roundup -The “Great Aktion of October 29, 1941” as it is known by the survivors.

 

Art8This woman is really for me a “Mona Lisa of Fort 9.” That her picture and fingerprints survived the killing and burning and decomposition process is a near miracle. She has that haunting expression and gaze of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre that leaves you wondering what she was thinking when she had her passport picture taken. Did she think she would travel the world? Have a full life? But we know her fate. She like the 50,000 others died in those pits and all we have are the inanimate artifacts to puzzle over their deaths.

 

Dr. Richard A. Freund

Published by

Dr. Susan Cardillo

Assistant Professor of Digital Media and Journalism Doctorate of Computer Science in Emerging Media

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