Imagine being a member of an archeology team when it makes an incredible international discovery—and being a junior in college at the time. This summer, Merav David ’19 spent four weeks as a member of the University of Hartford’s archaeology team at several Holocaust-era sites in and around Vilna, Lithuania. She excavated, cleaned artifacts, and shot 360-degree videos at the sites and her work is now part of an exhibit at the University’s Museum of Jewish Civilization titled, Vilna: The Jerusalem of Lithuania.
“It’s an exhibit about the experiences of the thousands and thousands of Lithuanian Jews who couldn’t share their story,” says Merav, from Livingston, N.J, who is double majoring in Judaic Studies in the University’s College of Arts and Sciences and ceramics in the Hartford Art School.
“It wasn’t an easy summer, and there was a lot of emotional intensity—but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything,” says Merav, who filmed 360-degree videos everywhere she could to give museum visitors the opportunity to see what it’s like to be a member of the University’s research team. She says it’s her hope the use of video technology will help young people connect better to what’s being displayed.
“It’s hard to understand what happened there in Vilna because it’s so surreal,” says Merav. “You look at the sites which are hidden or buried, you think about the numbers of lives lost, you listen to the testimony of the survivors, and the children of survivors. There’s never going to be an answer to questions such as: Who let this happen? How could this happen? How are we going to recover from this?”
Merav says standing in a public park, where the team used non-invasive techniques to locate mass graves, had a profound affect on her. “It was called the battlefield, because of all the smoke from the burning bodies,” she says. “Knowing what we were going to find, and then seeing people there casually going about their day was bizarre and eerie. You sort of have to choose if you want to partake in the memory of what the site was, or if you just want to pretend it’s not there.”
The team’s work also will be included in a 2018 television documentary about the HKP labor camp outside of Vilna. It was there that Nazi Officer Karl Plagge tried to save more than 1,250 Jews by warning them that the Nazis were coming to liquidate the camp. The documentary crew filmed as Merav and the team found hiding places and artifacts in the walls of the camp’s two apartment buildings, as well as the graves of those who did not escape.
Merav says her archeology experiences have carried over into her artwork. She created a painting using styles borrowed from artist Samuel Bak, who survived the Vilna Ghetto. “I plan to be an artist, and there are ways that ceramics and archaeology go very well together,” says Merav. “Finding pottery shards and understanding where they came from and how they were made help us understand the history of a place or people.”
For exhibit hours at the Museum of Jewish Civilization, click here.