When Alex Kleinschmidt struck up a conversation with Dr. Harry Jol during a class trip to the climbing wall on the UW-Eau Claire campus, the senior had no idea it would lead to joining a research team that would uncover a secret tunnel 80 Jews dug by hand to escape a Nazi extermination site in Lithuania 70 years ago.
Scaling a climbing wall is one thing, but helping uncover history is quite another.
“I was supposed to do an internship in Germany, but plans fell through and I was a last-minute addition to this project, so I guess you could say I got lucky,” Kleinschmidt recalled. “This is an invaluable experience. I’m so lucky to have been chosen to come here.”
Discoveries and how they got there
Near Vilnius, Lithuania, where an estimated 100,000 people were killed by the Nazis, the research team used radar and radio waves to scan beneath the ground and reveal a 100-foot passageway less than 10 feet below the surface. The team included geoscientists and geographers from around the globe.
Jol, UW-Eau Claire professor of geography and anthropology, and four students, Kleinschmidt of Mukwonago; James Erickson of Webster; Thomas Wavrin of Henderson, Minnesota; and Jackie Seamans of Minnetonka, Minnesota; spent about 10 days at the site in Ponar, today known as Paneriai. After leaving Paneriai, the group spent the rest of its time based in the Varniai region of western Lithuania.
Without support from UW-Eau Claire's International Fellows Program, funded by Blugold Commitment differential tuition, the students would not have been able to afford the incredible research experience.
“I gained an understanding of how to write grants,” Warvin, a senior studying human geography, said. “I now understand things you need to do in really any research-based projects. I wrote a grant for funding, I got it, and I’m here today.”
The UW-Eau Claire team’s largest contribution, Jol said, was providing the ground-penetrating radar and general geoscience background for the project.
“What we’re doing is groundbreaking. We are doing relatively new science on site, which is producing a good-quality result,” Warvin said. “I think it’s good for the scientific community in general, showing that science can solve what no one really thought science could solve before.”
The team, which also uncovered a burial pit in Ponar, gained the attention of media outlets from all over the world, including The New York Times, the Jerusalem Post, The Washington Post, National Public Radio and many others. The PBS science series NOVA will broadcast a documentary in 2017 about the team's historic research.
Seamans, a senior environmental geography major, said she knew PBS was filming the documentary, but initially she did not appreciate the enormity of the team's discovery.
“I did know that NOVA documentary staff were going to be there, but I had no idea that it would be this big of a find,” Seamans said. “It’s absolutely amazing, really. And it’s such an interesting story behind the tunnel we have found … hearing their resilience, and how after losing everything in their life, they continued to fight and find a way out rather than just giving up. The story behind it is just really heart touching.”
Transformative learning in an international setting
Through the collaborative work with other professionals and students from around the world who bring different skills and backgrounds to the table, Seamans said she’s learned more as a Blugold than she ever dreamed possible.
“It’s insane how many new things I’ve learned since being here. I’ve worked with archaeologists and scientists, we’ve done so many different scientific methods just to find anything really about the Jewish culture here that had not previously been known,” Seamans said. “The experience and being able to work with a team of a very diverse group of people is very helpful for the future.”
Although Kleinschmidt is more interested in environmental science, he said the general experience he’s gained in the research is invaluable as he moves forward.
“I think it gives me really valuable experience in the field, being able to use different scientific equipment and be able to analyze it. It’s just a great experience for me to build up my scientific skills in general,” Kleinschmidt said. “This is still an experience that I can take with me and show that I’m really versatile.”
The students were also able to gain the cultural immersion experience of a lifetime each night when they traded their shovels and dirt for cobblestone streets and the beautiful baroque architecture in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius.
“I liked the immersive experience of going to a place I’ve never been before, not understanding the language, trying new things and meeting new people,” said Erickson, a senior geography major.
All of these reasons are why Jol is so passionate about bringing students on trips around the world that provide valuable experiences in the field as well as opportunities for cultural immersion.
“We need to provide students with transformative learning experience in an international setting,” Jol said. “We have a student here who’s never flown before, we have students who have never experienced European or other cultures, and here we are in the midst of working within Lithuanian culture with a team that is from around the world.”
The students, however, found that the results of their research are much more meaningful to the communities it affects, as well as the entire world.
“Our research helps to bring truth to what some people viewed as just stories,” Erickson said.
Kleinschmidt said the team’s discoveries reinforce his drive to participate in meaningful projects.
“It really gives the Jewish people, especially those still here in Lithuania, a story of hope and perseverance that they can all lean on and strengthen their community, not just for the Lithuanian Jews, but for the Jews all over the world. It’s very important to them,” Kleinschmidt said. “This is a motivation to keep on doing projects like this and to keep contributing to the community around the world and to be able to say that I did something, not just for myself.”
Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire professor Harry Jol and a student survey a site during a research trip to Lithuania.