Geoscientists Without Borders: Holocaust Investigations

Dr Richard Freund

Archaeologist Richard Freund has been leading an archeological investigation with Geoscientists Without Borders (GWB).
Sobibor extermination camp, summer 1943
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The geoscience and archaeology joint group that we formed over a quarter century ago is committed to a single goal: applying noninvasive geoscience subsurface mapping and exploration as a prerequisite for every invasive archaeological excavation. Richard Freund

Since its inception, we have worked together with ever-changing technologies at sites that included caves, lakes, forests, cemeteries, death camps, cities, villages, religious institutions and inside of businesses and houses. Our goal from the beginning of our collaboration was to convince traditional archaeologists that it was an advantage to use geoscience subsurface mapping to know what is below the surface before excavations.

To date, members of our group have worked at 65 individual sites in six countries and produced hundreds of specialized reports for local municipalities, foundations, and governments, published scores of professional conference papers and articles, and brought into the work fifty undergraduate and graduate students.

Our projects include historical periods from the most ancient Neolithic to the modern period. In 2008 we were invited to work on a project at the infamous Sobibor extermination camp. Since that time, our group has done 30 distinct Holocaust era sites and changed the field of Holocaust studies and archaeology.

Members of the Geoscience and Archaeology group at the Mila #18 bunker memorial in 2019

Our 2019 project was a cooperation of private industry, public and private universities, foreign governments and local municipalities. It included specialists from architecture, biology, chemistry, anthropology, cartography, geophysics, geology, history, and computing among many others). More important, it included Holocaust survivor testimonies, historical photographs and artwork that helped provide us with background information pertaining to every study we facilitated.

The work that our collaborators in the GWB grant did in 2019 was a culmination of work that had begun in 2008 in Poland and continued in Lithuania in 2015. The 2019 science team headed by Paul Bauman accepted the challenge of going to seven different sites with multiple teams and combining efforts with local archaeologists: in Warsaw, Poland-Mila 18, the Royal Lazienki Park, the Bersohn and Bauman Jewish Children’s Hospital, in Lithuania-Fort IX, Pravieniskes, the Great Synagogue of Vilnius, the Great Synagogue of Seduva.

Timing was key. We needed to have permits for each country and site, while working with local archaeologists to ensure that follow up was locally based and a part of national and regional priorities. We generally have the equipment on loan to our group for two-three-week periods at a time, so we must travel from site to site and process our data daily. Preliminary reports were prepared as we traveled in the field. Reports were produced and follow up work scheduled for 2020 which was rescheduled (because of the pandemic) for 2021.

In the meantime, the initial results showed a pattern of exciting new discoveries and information that invites in world attention. The results of technologies such as Ground Penetrating Radar and Electrical Resistivity Tomography are being written about in popular journalistic works around the world.

I have been asked by researchers in Holocaust and archaeological studies if we think our group has made a difference. With the advancements of geoscience, I truly believe we are making a profound impact on historical investigations.  We now see that many different archaeological projects [from many different periods] and especially at Holocaust era sites have started to introduce geoscience into their planning from the start and not at the end of a project. It has now opened a new subfield for the Society of Exploration Geophysicists and we thank SEG for the GWB grant and for the opportunity to bring our work to the greater public through the now seven different television documentaries which chronicle our work. The 2016 discovery of a subsurface escape tunnel discovered with subsurface electrical resistivity tomography mapping was chronicled in a PBS NOVA episode, “Holocaust Escape Tunnel” and seen worldwide.

Geoscientists Without Borders is a program within the Society of Exploration Geophysicists that investigates archaeological sites and works to mitigate natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis.

Dr. Richard Freund is Bertram and Gladys Aaron Professor of Jewish Studies, Christopher Newport University

Aspects of History Issue 6 is out now.

Richard Freund