For several years, University of Hartford archeology professor Richard Freund has led an inter-disciplinary archeology team which has examined several sites in Lithuania that are of importance to Jewish history, including the site of the Great Vilna Synagogue and the murder pits in the Ponar woods outside of Vilna / Vilnius. In July 2017, Professor Freund accepted our proposal that in the summer of 2018 his team should examine the Trakas and Olkin-Jofe sites. The RKM and the Rokiškis regional government officially sponsored the research work and Remembering Litvaks committed to pay the RKM’s costs of retaining Professor Romas Jarockis, an archeology professor at the Vilnius Academy of the Arts, to secure the required research permits and submit a report on the results of the study to the Lithuanian government. The research project was expanded to include two additional sites, namely, the ruins of the mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) in the nearby village of Ponedel / Pandėlys, and part of the ruins of the 16th Century Kroshinsky Manor, which was the Rokiškis region’s seat of power when Jews began migrating to the area.
In addition to Professors Freund and Jarockis, the research team included three American university professors, geo-morphologist Harry Jol, of the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, cartographer Philip Reeder, of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and University of Hartford media communications professor Susan Cardillo, and students from their respective universities. During the week of July 15-22, 2018, they used non-invasive, ground-penetrating-radar technology to study the Trakas and Olkin-Jofe sites. After analyzing the data from the radar scans, the team found the exact resting places of the victims.
Also accompanying the group was Dr. Joan Silber, of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of American Cultural Heritage Abroad, and Matthew Shaer, a freelance journalist who subsequently wrote an article about Matilda Olkinaitė for the Smithsonian magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/young-jewish-poet-words-provokes-soul-searching-lithuania-holocaust-180970540/.
Several of Professor Cardillo’s students are making a documentary that will be entitled, “Finding Matilda.” (A two-minute trailer for the documentary was released in October 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jypRpFz9jmY.) Professor Jol’s students presented a paper at the November 2018 conference of the Geological Society of America on the technology used to examine the Trakas site, https://gsa.confex.com/gsa/2018AM/meetingapp.cgi/Paper/324710.
To gain a comprehensive view of the sites to be researched, Professor Freund’s group also interviewed many people, including local residents of the area and historians. Among those interviewed was Neringa Danienė, a member of the Rokiškis Theatre Association (“RTA”), who was inspired by the 2014 RKM publication to write an award-winning play about Matilda Olkinaitė, “Nutildytos Mūzos,” (“Silenced Muses”), which was staged and performed by the RTA, https://www.facebook.com/nutildytosmuzos, https://www.grokiskis.lt/kalbame-strazdelio-kalba/nutildytu-muzu-istorija-atskleide-zydu-seimos-skausminga-likima.
Remembering Litvaks invited Lithuanian-American author and poet Laima Vince to serve as the interpreter for the interviews. Laima saw a performance of “Silenced Muses,” read Matilda Olkinaitė’s poetry and diary entries, and wrote a lengthy essay about her that was published in April 2018, https://deepbaltic.com/2018/05/08/the-silenced-muse-the-life-of-a-murdered-jewish-lithuanian-poet/. Laima has also translated “Silenced Muses,” into English, https://www.amazon.com/Silenced-Muses-Story-About-Death/dp/1729488137. Currently, Laima and Neringa are also collaborating on a soon-to-be-published book containing Matilda Olkinaitė’s poetry and diary in Lithuanian and English. Remembering Litvaks has contributed to the cost of the book’s publication.
(Note: Laima Vince translated into English the Lithuanian poem of Vytautas Bložys entitled, “The Jewish Cemetery.” Words from that poem, in Lithuanian and English, are engraved on the memorial stone that Remembering Litvaks erected outside of the entrance to the old Rokiškis Jewish cemetery.)
In Prof. Freund’s book, The Archaeology of the Holocaust (2019), he explains that he wanted to locate Matilda’s final resting place and help tell her life story because it humanizes what otherwise could be accounts with grim, impersonal statistics. “I understand … why finding Matilda’s burial site is as important as finding the Fort IX killing fields.” Id., 242.