‘If God Created Monsters, He Also Created Heroes’

research conducted at UWEC informs off-Broadway play

Rebecca Mennecke

bringing stories to the surface. Each summer since 2015, students and faculty from UW-Eau Claire have been part of a team using ground-penetrating radar to uncover Holocaust sites in Lithuania.
bringing stories to the surface. Each summer since 2015, students and faculty from UW-Eau Claire have been part of a team using ground-penetrating radar to uncover Holocaust sites in Lithuania.

Jos akys ryškios, pilnos šviesos. Translated to mean “Her eyes are bright, full of light,” these are the words of 19-year old Lithuanian poet, Matilda Olkin, who was executed by Lithuanian Nazi collaborators in 1941.

They are also the words that Madeline Fuerstenberg, a second-year journalism student at UW-Eau Claire, had tattooed on her arm following her research on burial grounds in Lithuania last summer with UW-Eau Claire geography and anthropology professor, Harry Jol – specifically, where Olkin and her family are suspected to be buried, Fuerstenberg said.

“I think this is what we should be doing. We should be collaborating. We should be working with others.” – Harry Jol, UW-Eau Claire geography and anthropology professor

Jol, alongside Richard Freund, the director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies and a professor of Jewish history at the University of Hartford, collaborated in the research that informs a new play, titled Vilna, which is currently running Off-Broadway in New York.

The research team, which includes UWEC students, has used ground-penetrating radar to locate the Great Synagogue of Vilna – burial grounds containing the bodies of Holocaust victims – and the Ponar tunnel, Jol said. The synagogue they identified – perhaps one of the most significant in Lithuania – was destroyed by Nazis during the Holocaust. The Ponar tunnel – a hand-dug ditch that allowed a handful of Jewish prisoners to escape execution – plays a role in Vilna, according to the play’s website.

“The historical heroes and monsters who occupy the stage are forcefully felt – and much in need of being remembered,” said Elisha Wiesel, the son of late author and Holocaust survivor, Eli Wiesel.

The play, authored by Ira Fuchs and directed by Joseph Discher, premiered at the Theater at St. Clement’s in New York on March 11. It follows the story of Motke Zeidel, a Jewish man who was forced to dig up bodies and burn them to “eliminate the evidence” of what the Nazis were doing. Zeidel helped other Jewish people escape by digging the Ponar tunnel, with help from Yudi Farber, an orphaned civil engineer, the play’s website said. “The play ends where we start,” Jol said.

Jewish people during the Holocaust in Lithuania realized that they were being taken to big fields to be executed and buried in mass graves, so they knew they needed to escape, Jol said. Thus, many helped dig the Ponar tunnel. Twelve people escaped, and 11 survived, Jol said.

“I like to compare it to if you went to every small town in Wisconsin, there would be an execution site,” Jol said.

In terms of the play, a multidisciplinary approach to telling these stories is critical, Jol said. While the research teams provide the scientific validity of what happened in Lithuania, the play helps tell the story in a way that appeals to a different audience.

“I think this is what we should be doing,” Jol said. “We should be collaborating. We should be working with others. People get influenced by different pieces, be it science, be it art, be it music, be it whatever. People are influenced in different ways.”

Joseph Beck, a fifth-year environmental geography student at UW-Eau Claire, has participated in the research with Jol for two years and has presented at national and international conferences on the research conducted in Lithuania.

“Sometimes I find, like, I think that science intimidates people,” Beck said. “So if you incorporate the other things, it’s more accessible for more people.”

Uncovering new stories, like the ones about Matilda Olkin, hasn’t concluded with the creation of the play: This summer, at least four students will join Jol, Freund, and a handful of other researchers to look for a town underneath a lake that was flooded in Lithuania, Jol said. They also look to continue their research with hill forts, synagogues, and execution sites.

“We’re helping locate things that were lost,” said Sam Schneider, a fourth-year geospatial analysis and technologies student at UW-Eau Claire who participated in the research with Fuerstenberg last summer.

To learn more about Vilna, which runs through April 14 in New York, visit vilna-the-play.org.

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