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Digging up the Holocaust’s European history

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Speaking through a microphone and using a clicker to rotate images, Dr. Richard Freund, the Maurice Greenberg professor of Jewish history and director of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford, took the audience at Temple Beth El in Cedarhurst on a journey spanning 2,300 years from Rhodes in Greece to the Ponar Burial Pits near Vilna in Lithuania.

Freund spoke on Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorated in the United States and Israel on a day corresponding to the 27th day of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar. It marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, when Jewish residents battled Nazi forces for nearly a month that April and May. German soldiers crushed the 27-day resistance, yet it remains a symbol of Jewish courage.

The May 1 event that included lighting six candles in memory of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust (Shoah in Hebrew) and prayer and song was coordinated by Congregation Sons of Israel in Woodmere, the Hewlett-East Rockaway Jewish Centre in East Rockaway, Temple Beth El and Temple Hillel in North Woodmere.

“It is sad and tragic commemorating the horror of the Holocaust, compounded by the incidents at synagogues, churches and mosques and the terror around the world,” said Bob Fischman, Temple Beth El’s president.

Archeology is the new frontier for learning about the Holocaust, according to Freund, especially with Holocaust survivors, part of the “Greatest Generation,” dying. Using what he called noninvasive techniques — ground penetrating radar and electrical resistivity tomography — his team that includes students and experts in engineering have made significant historical discoveries, more than 100,000 small artifacts along with huge finds.

The Great Synagogue of Vilna, built in the 17th century, was the center of Jewish life combining religious customs, cultural traditions and food markets. It was a massive structure three stories above ground and spanned the size of two football fields with much of it below ground. Vilna was considered the Jerusalem of Lithuania. Standing on the site of two previous Jewish house of worship it was demolished between 1955 and 1957 by the Soviets, replaced by a school building but preserved underground.

“We found the actual bema of the synagogue under the principal’s office,” Freund, noting the discovery of the second mikvah. A bema is the elevated platform where the Torah is read. A mikvah is the ritual Jewish bath.

Rhodes, Greece existed for 2,300 years and the community of Jews there thrived, including doing trade with people in Judea, Freund said. Then the Nazis rounded all 1,800 Jews, along with the 120 Jews from Cos, another Greek community, and sent them all to Auschwitz in 1944. Records document 150 survivors from the Rhodes Jews.

Noting that 90 percent of the Jews in Lithuania were killed, Freund discussed the Ponar Burial Pits, where after the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators murdered 100,000 Jews, the remaining 80 Jews were forced to exhume the bodies and then they were burned. Freund said, yes, many saw family and friends. Realizing they were to be killed after completing the horrid task, a 100-foot tunnel, dug by hand was used to escape. As Freund spoke about this and the discovery the room was silent.

His latest book, “Archeology of the Holocaust: Vilna, Rhodes, and Escape Tunnels,” Freund details all of these finds.

“The religion goes on despite the anti-Semitism that continues around the world,” said Temple Beth El Rabbi Claudio Kupchik, alluding to the Poway Chabad shooting that occurred on April 27.