Fairfield holds 34th Holocaust Commemoration
FAIRFIELD — In another 20 years, Richard Freund told the audience at the town’s 34th Holocaust Commemoration Wednesday, there won’t be any survivors left to tell their story.
Instead, he said, it will fall to today’s students to bring their stories to life, and to light.
Freund, director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford, led an expedition last summer to Lithuania, to excavate the Great Synagogue of Vilnius, and — after a somewhat sheepish request from a Lithuanian colleague — ending up helping to prove the existence of escape tunnels.
“We were going to do one thing,” Freund recounted, “excavate the Great Synagogue of Vilnius. This was massive, like the size of two YMCA’s, or two football fields back to back.”
His colleague said that 100,000 were murdered by the Nazis in Vilnius, and they had found a few of the burial pits in the Polnar killing fields, but suspected there were many more. He asked could they find those burial pits. “That’s something we could do,” Freund said. But there was also, the colleague said, the story about 80 Jews who were brought to Polnar to burn all the bodies of the murdered Jews, to hide the evidence of what they had done.
These 80, knowing they would be killed once their job was done, spent 76 days digging an escape tunnel. “They burned all day, and they dug all night,” Freund said. On the last night of Passover, when it would be the darkest, they escaped through the tunnel As they came out into the forest, Nazi guards heard them and began shooting. Only 12 survived.
Could the expedition, Freund’s colleague asked, find the tunnel?
“I’ve been in the field 35 years,” Freund said. “It’s rare I have a camera at the moment a discovery is made, but NOVA was there.” “The Holocaust Escape Tunnel” premiered last week on PBS.
It is the new frontier of Holocaust studies, Freund said, to use new science technology to plot out, and map, and excavate without destruction— “non-invasive archaeology.”
They have been able to find the tunnel, to locate mass graves, and discover artifacts from the synagogue.
“You can never understand the Holocaust unless you understand the greatness that was Vilnius,” Freund said. The Jewish population there made up 40 percent of the town and was a center of Jewish culture, known as the Jerusalem of the North.
Since the synagogue could not be built taller than the tallest church, it was built with three floors above ground, and another two floors below. Destroyed by the Nazis, it was later torn down by the Russians, who built a school on the site. It was the school, Freund said, that helped preserve the two floors below ground.
The escape tunnel, Freund said, was more than 100 feet, and dug by hand. “If you asked what is the greatest thing you’ve ever done, I would say, ‘I found a tunnel in Lithuania.’”
At the end of the expedition, Freund said they flew to Israel, to meet the children and grandchildren of those who had escaped. “There was a grandson, who said he had never believed it,” Freund said, but did now, thanks to the expedition’s discovery.
It is up to the scientists, Freund said, to bring the testimonies of the survivors to reality.
The annual commemoration, held each year at First Church Congregational, featured musical selections by the Fairfield Ludlowe High School Chamber Orchestra and Chamber Singers of the Fairfield County Children’s Choir. At the end of the evening, candles were lit as the names of concentration camps were read.
On hand for the event was Julius Pranevicius, Consul General of the Republic of Lithuania.
“I know that people all over the world are following the work of the professor,” he said, which shows what Lithuania lost during the Holocaust, but also shows the strength of the people that were there and “their wish to fight for freedom.”
The past can’t be changed, Pranevicius said, but projects like Freund’s “really help to build a better future.”