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She can dig it

Local student balances ‘feeling’ with ‘doing’ in Holocaust excavations

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Livingston’s Merav David worked on Holocaust archaeology digs in Lithuania. Photos courtesy Merav David
Livingston’s Merav David worked on Holocaust archaeology digs in Lithuania. Photos courtesy Merav David

When Merav David, 21, was in route to Lithuania she believed she was to work on a recently discovered escape tunnel found at Ponar, where up to 100,000 Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. 

But her plans changed when she arrived. Instead of the tunnel, currently the subject of several documentaries, she spent about half of her four weeks on the excavation of the Great Synagogue in Vilnius; one week working on a series of medieval forts used as mass extermination sites during the Holocaust; and the last week at HKP 562, an unusual forced labor camp where the leader, a Nazi general, worked to protect the Jews sent there.

David, of Livingston, now a junior at the University of Hartford majoring in Judaic studies and fine art with a focus on ceramics, was unfazed by the last-minute shift. “The whole thing with archaeology is that you have to go with the flow. Sometimes things don’t go as planned,” she said. “It depends on the politics of the situation, if permits go through, if everyone on the team can work that day. It’s very reliant on the moment.” 

In addition to consulting with geophysicists, David utilized special equipment which included drones and electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) to map the most likely locations for mass graves at the Holocaust sites. ERT maps underground areas using principles of electrical conductivity. 

The first half of her stay involved more traditional digging at the synagogue site, where coins were “exciting” finds. 

“There’s a lot of information you can get from a single coin,” said David. “They allow us to understand who was here, what they brought with them, what year it was, what type of trade they were involved in.” Because they are “thin and flimsy” and “hide easily in the dirt,” she said they are quite hard to fine. There were plenty of pottery shards — which she, as someone invested in ceramics, loves — as well as jugs, jars, and bowls, “things the synagogue would have used for Shabbat, dining, and cooking.” Of these, she pointed out, the handles are the most important finds. “They are useful in helping with dates because different handles would have been used at different times,” she said.

Her work on the mass graves and labor camps during the second half of her time in Lithuania was, from an emotional standpoint, far more challenging. “You are not sure what you are going to find underneath your feet, but you know what could be there,” David said. “The reality of that is very intense.”

Still, she said that she couldn’t allow such feelings to interfere with the job at hand. 

“You have to allow your emotions to come through but not let them keep you from doing what you need to be doing,” she said. “Learning the terrible, horrific things that happened and then having to work in the field is difficult. You have to keep yourself in a headspace where you can balance feeling and doing.”

She did visit Ponar twice during her stay, touring the escape tunnel with the son of the survivor who spearheaded the construction of the tunnel, dug by Jews by hand in the stealth of the night. 

Sometimes it was the people who inspired her, like Sydney Handler, who was 10 when he was interned with his family at HKP 562. Handler was one of the few children who survived a “kinder aktion” organized by the SS that led to the murder of most of the children living there. Handler escaped that fate because his mother hid him in a cabinet that day. “Hearing [Handler’s] story was heartbreaking. I can’t believe he comes back to a place so devastating for him,” said David. Now a resident of Boston, Handler “feels it’s his life mission to make what happened there known.”  

A highlight for David, after long days of hard physical work, was the communal dinners which sometimes lasted until 11 p.m. She described the meals as “familial” events where “everyone brought something different from the excavation to the table and we’d dissect it all and go over the day.” 

While she went with a goal of learning about archaeology, and she believes the experience will be useful toward that end, she added that the trip also changed her. “I look at the world differently since I’ve been back: going to a place decimated by Nazis and then coming home and seeing a Nazi rally in Charlottesville was surreal,” she said. “Before I went, that was all history. Now it’s all very relevant.”

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