Sometimes, even the most innocuous experiences can eventually become life-changing. Chloe Kofman knows this first hand.
Chloe was a Blugold long before she chose to attend the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Growing up in nearby Chippewa Falls, her first experiences with the campus community were through her Father, a non-traditional student, who would take her to Blugold hockey games on a regular basis. Thus, when choosing colleges, Chloe didn’t want to travel – she felt right at home in Eau Claire.
As an Honors student, Chloe was required to attend a program event during her freshman year as part of the Honors 100 seminar. On a whim, she chose to attend a talk by Dr. Harry Jol, a professor in the Geography and Anthropology department. That day, he presented on research conducted in Lithuania regarding the presence of WWII-era concentration camps and their effect on the populace. She found it interesting, but admittedly “shelved it in her mind.” Unbeknownst to her, this would later prove to be an incredibly formative decision.
During this past January, Chloe found herself with nothing to keep her engaged and began seeking out opportunities for research or additional study. Remembering the presentation that she had attended during her freshman year, she reached out to Dr. Jol and inquired about participating in his ongoing research.
To her surprise, she was swiftly welcomed aboard. She and three other students from academic backgrounds including journalism and geography joined Dr. Jol in Lithuania for three weeks this past summer. Working alongside researchers from Duquesne University, the University of Hartford, and experts from the Israel Antiquities Authority, the team leveraged Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) to detect abnormalities below the soil.
This non-invasive, subsurface imaging technique can reveal man-made structures, leading to major archaeological discoveries. Additionally, in the case of burial sites, this technology strikes a balance between confirming the presence of grave sites while leaving them undisturbed, following the Jewish religion’s prohibition of excavations involving human remains.
Dr. Jol has had great success with this method in the past. In 2016, He and a similar team of UW-Eau Claire student researchers used GPR to uncover a 100-foot escape tunnel, which was dug by hand through the combined efforts of nearly 80 Jewish refugees. These refugees were working to escape a Nazi extermination side near Ponar, a neighborhood of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Vilnius had a thriving Jewish community prior to WWII, which made it a key target for the horrendous ethnic persecution of the Nazi regime. The discovery of the tunnel made international headlines and was featured in a 2017 NOVA documentary titled “Holocaust Escape Tunnel.”
Chloe’s team served a key role in maintaining UW-Eau Claire’s research presence in Lithuania, specifically in exploring the site of Vilnius’ Great Synagogue for the third consecutive year. This place of worship was central to Vilnius prior to WWII but was subsequently razed by both the Nazis and occupying Soviets. Using GPR, the team located and identified 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.
GPR was also used with great efficacy in uncovering the burial sites of two Jewish families – the Olkins and Jofes – in Rokiskis, a region in Northeastern Lithuania near the country’s border with Latvia. This burial site holds the remains of Matilda Olkin, one of Lithuania’s more recently cherished and mourned victims of the Holocaust. Often compared to Anne Frank, Matilda was only 19 when she and her family were massacred by the Nazis in 1941. At the time of her death, Matilda had a clear, bright future in mind; she had attended the University of Vilnius and was an aspiring poet.
Similar to past years, both discoveries made local and international headlines and were featured by news outlets from Israel, Malaysia, France, Spain, Poland, and Russia, to name a few. Later this fall, an article featuring the team’s contributions will be published in the Smithsonian Magazine.
As a scholar of European History, Chloe provided background and context to the project in addition to working with the rest of the team to explore the implementation and efficacy of past research methods. In addition, her participation allowed her to experience European culture firsthand. Despite her studies in European History, she had never been to Europe before, and was amazed and humbled by the distinct cultural differences she observed in Lithuania. She had to quickly adjust to the fact that “not everyone’s going to speak your language, not everyone’s going to have the same customs,” but that, through collaboration, cultural differences provide a key source of strength in tackling challenging problems.
Currently, Chloe is pursuing a degree in Liberal Studies, with emphasis on European History and Jewish Studies. In addition to her own Jewish heritage, her experiences in research with Dr. Jol have reaffirmed her passionate interest in studying cultural development. In the future, Chloe hopes to continue to collaborate with Dr. Jol and to “see more of the world and what it has to offer.”
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