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New documentary features international research project in Lithuania that includes Blugolds

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: Blugolds (from left) Logan Bergevin, Cameron Wingren, Kelly Jerviss and Hailee Jefferies were part of an international research team that uncovered the Great Synagogue of Vilna, the oldest and most significant Jewish monument in Lithuania.

An expedition involving an international team of researchers — including a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire faculty member and several students — that uncovered the oldest and most significant Jewish monument in Lithuania will be featured in a new documentary.

A virtual preview of the documentary, "The Secrets of the Synagogue,” will begin at 3 p.m. Nov. 1.

Harry Jol portrait

Dr. Harry Jol, professor of geography, has worked on the project in Lithuania since it started in 2015.

Following the preview, the Vilna Shul in Boston will hold an online panel discussion with the filmmaker and members of the research team, including Dr. Harry Jol, a professor of geography at UW-Eau Claire whose expertise in ground-penetrating radar was instrumental to the project’s success.

In addition to Jol, panelists will be Dr. Richard Freund, a U.S. archaeologist; Loic Salfati, Lithuanian film project director; and Dr. Phil Reeder, lead cartographer.

“It is important that we share the results from these programs with regional, national and international audiences,” Jol says of the documentary. “As many of the Holocaust survivors are passing away due to their age, their stories are important to remember and reflect on. Genocide is still being carried out in the world today and we should be reacting, but we are not.”

The film chronicles the process to uncover, document and now preserve the remains of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, a grand religious institution in Vilnius that was destroyed during the Holocaust.

The Great Synagogue of Vilna was the spiritual and physical home of the Lithuanian Jews. One of the oldest and most significant religious and cultural sites of Eastern European Jewry, it was ransacked during World War II and destroyed by the Soviets in 1956. An elementary school later was built on top of its remains.

“The Great Synagogue of Vilna (Vilnius) is the oldest and most significant monument of Litvak Jewry,” Jol says. “UWEC’s Holocaust geoarchaeology program is an international collaboration with multiple partners who are involved in locating and excavating the remains of this edifice of Litvak culture, and spiritual and physical home of the Gaon of Vilna.”

The new film tells the story of the professionals, scientists, university students and volunteers who came together to be part of the expedition. It also shares the story and history of the Great Synagogue, a symbol of lost civilization.

Jol has worked on this international research since it began in 2015. During that time, 13 UW-Eau Claire students also have been involved in the project, traveling with Jol to Lithuania for weeks at a time to work at the site. Most students who joined the project were underrepresented minorities studying within the STEM field sciences, Jol says.

Using GPR, Jol helped to locate and identify what remains of the synagogue’s outer walls, as well as remnants of its bimah, a platform which was used for three centuries to conduct readings of the Torah.

His students collate, process, analyze, interpret and present their research at regional, national and international professional meetings, Jol says.

“UW-Eau Claire is recognized worldwide for its commitment to incorporating undergraduate students in challenging international research,” Jol says. “These are transformative experiences for the students. To see their professional and personal growth over this sometimes rocky international research cycle is amazing to witness. I am proud of them.”

Students who have worked with Jol on the international project say the experience helped them hone their research skills, learn about a new culture and better their understanding of world history.

Hailee Jefferies works at the site of the Great Synagogue in Lithuania. She says it was incredible opportunity to work at the historic site while still an undergraduate student.

Hailee Jefferies works at the site of the Great Synagogue in Lithuania. She says it was incredible opportunity to work at the historic site while still an undergraduate student.

Hailee Jefferies, a senior environmental geography major from New Lisbon, says she enjoyed being part of an international research team that shared a goal of uncovering the Great Synagogue.

It was incredible that as an undergraduate student she had the opportunity to use ground-penetrating radar — a noninvasive tool that shoots radar pluses into the ground and images the subsurface to find human-made objects in the ground — to help the researchers know where to dig, says Jefferies, who joined the project in spring 2019.

"A highlight was getting the opportunity to do some archaeological work, like excavating parts of the synagogue," Jefferies says. "The project also gave me the chance to discover more about events during World War II and to do something special for those who lost loved ones. I honestly felt very special to be a part of team that was doing such extensive research to learn more about the past, but doing it in a way that would preserve it."

The real-world research experience also helped her gain knowledge that will help her be more successful in her future career and life, Jefferies says.

"My thinking changed a lot during this project," Jefferies says. "I became more aware of different cultures and history during World War II, and it gave me a sense that I could do something special for those who had lost loved ones and for them to know that they are not forgotten. 

"This project also gave me the opportunity, sooner than others, to get fieldwork experience with archaeological work and GPR, which will be beneficial in my major and in finding a job in the future."

Members of the expedition team are from Lithuania, the U.S., Canada, Israel and other nations. Their goal is to excavate, preserve and present the remains of the Great Synagogue as part of a plan to safeguard the memory of the Jewish community of Vilnius, the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.”

While a preview of "The Secrets of the Synagogue” will be shared during the Nov. 1 event, the entire film is not expected to be completed until spring 2021.

UW-Eau Claire — including student researchers — is represented within the documentary, Jol says, adding that signage at the historic site in Lithuania also recognizes UW-Eau Claire’s contributions to the project.

“Our students were part of the incredible discoveries that were made during these past five years, and are part of the film documenting the project,” Jol says. “It’s been an extraordinary project, which has been covered by media throughout the world.”

Knowing their work will be shared with others via the documentary means a lot to her, Jefferies says.

"This gives more people the opportunity to learn more about the Great Synagogue and what happened there during World War II," Jefferies says of the film, adding that it also will help educate viewers about the research process and techniques used to achieve research goals.

Monies from UW-Eau Claire’s International Fellows Program helped make it possible for students to travel with Jol to Lithuania several times to assist with the project. University of Hartford, Geoscientists without Borders, U.S. Embassy and private donations also helped fund the students, Jol says, noting that several students also provided their own funding.

Martin Goettl, UW-Eau Claire's geospatial technology facilitator, also was involved in the project.

You can find details and register for the Nov. 1 event online.

For more information about UW-Eau Claire’s role in the project, contact Dr. Harry Jol at jolhm@uwec.edu