4,000 miles off the eastern seaboard, in the capital city of Lithuania, a UW-Eau Claire professor realized he was standing on history. Dr. Harry Jol, a professor of geology and archeology at UW-Eau Claire, has dedicated several years of research to the Jewish history of Lithuania, primarily from the World War II era. Dr. Jol, with the help of a few lucky students, has made a number of ground breaking discoveries.
Beginning in 2015, Dr. Jol and his students began implementing a ground penetrating radar device (GPR), allowing them to analyze artifacts that may be buried underground. The team’s first major discovery came in July 2015, when the remnants of The Great Synagogue of Vilna were discovered. This synagogue, now buried underneath a modern school, was destroyed in the Holocaust. In the summer of 2016, Dr. Jol and his students conducted an excavation at the site of the destroyed synagogue. Thomas Wavrin, one of Dr. Jol’s research students, states “The outcome of this project [was to] re-establish some of the Jewish heritage in Vilnius, Lithuania with the ultimate goal of creating a Jewish Memorial Center at the location of the destroyed synagogue.” The discovery of this buried synagogue marks an important victory for the Jewish community, as they have found a piece of their culture they long believed to be lost.
The team’s next discovery came in July 2017, as they were able to use GPR to discover a mass underground burial site in Vilnius. Prior to World War II, Vilnius was known as the Jerusalem of the North, as it was home to a large portion of the Jewish community. However, as the Nazis invaded and murdered approximately ninety eight percent of Vilnius’ Jewish population, they buried many of the bodies underground, hoping to erase any trace of their existence. What the Nazis couldn’t have hoped or prepared for, however, was Dr. Jol’s groundbreaking GPR excavations that would take place nearly eighty years later. Luke Burds, a student doing service-learning with Dr. Jol, notes “Many of the [Jewish population] were put into mass graves, buried, and lost to history. Using GPR, we were able to locate some of these mass graves and provide the community of Vilnius with the information we found.” The world, and the Jewish community especially, may never be at peace with the terror of the Holocaust, but Dr. Jol’s discovery leads us a little further down the path of closure.
Additionally, Dr. Jol and his students were able to discover the possible remains of three US soldiers fighting in Lithuania during World War II. Dr. Jol states “we conducted research at the only POW camp in Lithuania, that held US, British, Canadian, and Australian Airmen - one of the little known stories of World War II that we are helping elucidate with geoscience.” Dr. Jol and his students came together with researchers from other universities to make this discovery.
While Dr. Jol’s previous excavations took place in Vilnius, this one was made in Silute. The city of Silute housed the uppermost European POW camp during the war. It is believed that these US airmen perished in captivity at this camp, along with many other brave soldiers from various countries. Not only have Dr. Jol’s rigorous research projects brought great closure to the Jewish community, but they have also shed light on the military heroes who sacrificed their lives to protect a world at war.