Clark alum joined archaeologists in Holocaust tunnel discovery; NOVA to feature story

April 19, 2017
Rachel Polinsky stands next to Richard Freund on the green at Clark University
Rachel Polinsky '16 returned to campus for the David and Edith Chaifetz Lecture in Jewish Studies by Richard Freund.

A Clark University alumna had a front-row seat for an international news story that PBS’ NOVA is featuring on April 19: archaeologists’ discovery last summer of a Holocaust escape tunnel built by Jews near Vilna, Lithuania.

Richard Freund standing in front of screen showing top New York Times science stories of 2016, which includes the story about the tunnel discovery in Lithuania
Richard Freund speaks at Clark in March.

Rachel Polinsky ’16 graduated from Clark with a dual degree in art history and ancient civilization last May. She then headed to Lithuania to work alongside Richard Freund and an international team of archaeologists, historians and college students.

Now a graduate student in Brandeis University’s ancient Greek and Roman studies program, Polinsky recently returned to Clark for a visit by Freund, director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies and Greenberg Professor of Jewish History at the University of Hartford. In the David and Edith Chaifetz Lecture in Jewish Studies on March 30, Freund talked about the discovery of the escape tunnel at Ponar, as well as excavations of the Great Synagogue of Vilna.

The tunnel discovery last June was covered by international media, including The New York Times, which listed the story among the “Science News That Stuck With Us in 2016.

“I call Ponar ground zero for the Holocaust,” Freund told The New York Times last summer. “For the first time we have systematic murder being done by the Nazis and their assistants.”

From 1941 to 1944, the Nazis rounded up 70,000 Jews from the nearby city of Vilna (also known as Vilnius), as well as 30,000 Jews from other cities, and brought them to Lithuanian collaborators.

“The Jews that were at the ghetto in Vilna were being told they were coming to do work, and so they would bring all their belongings, and by the time they arrived at Ponar, they realized they weren’t leaving,” Polinsky explains. “The Nazis and locals took all the Jews’ belongings and brought them to local stores. The Jews would be placed in a holding pit, brought over to one of these death pits, lined up and then shot.”

Over the years, 11 burial pits have been uncovered, as well as the entrance to the tunnel. The NOVA episode will focus on the discovery of a 12th burial pit and the full length of the tunnel. To understand what lay beneath the earth, archaeologists used electrical resistivity tomography technology and ground-penetrating radar.

Rhys Townsend at an archaeological excavation
Rhys Townsend

What Rachel Polinsky learned at Clark

The Lithuania archaeological expedition isn’t the first such experience for Polinsky. While at Clark, she traveled to Antiochia ad Cragum, Turkey, with other students and her adviser, Rhys Townsend, professor of art history, to assist in excavation of a Roman site.

Polinsky credits Townsend for working with her to develop an academic path that fit her interests. She studied abroad in Athens and took advanced classes in ancient Attic Greek language at Assumption College. The summer after her junior year, she interned at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, where she catalogued and organized ancient artifacts.

“I met with Dr. Townsend early on in my first semester at Clark, and from that very first meeting he started mentoring and guiding me throughout my undergraduate career. He continues to mentor me as a graduate student,” says Polinsky, who graduated cum laude and was inducted into Eta Sigma Phi, the honorary society for classical studies.

“I learned how to take charge of my education through doing independent studies," she adds. "I gained the experience of interacting regularly with Dr. Townsend, having in-depth and complex conversations, and I was able to study the material that I really wanted to know more about. I think I became a better researcher and academic due to independent studies.”