Philip Reeder always loved history, geology and maps. So, the Baltimore native, now a Duquesne University professor, got his doctorate in geography and started an academic career researching water resources and soil.
Then, at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Reeder met Richard Freund, a fellow professor. Freund, a much-acclaimed Jewish scholar, biblical archeologist and rabbi, invited Reeder in 1999 to join his team in Israel on a technology-informed archaeological mission.
It changed everything.
Reeder and Freund continued collaborating for a generation with electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) and ground penetrating radar (GPR), which uses FM radio waves to help researchers “see” beneath land or the surface of a building without digging.
The technology was first developed to serve people scouting locations in the oil and gas industry, Reeder said.
This summer, Reeder traveled to the Baltics to find the unmarked graves of dozens of Jews murdered by Nazis in July 1941 in the Latvian city of Liepaja.
The influence of Freund, who died at age 67 on July 14, 2022, lingered in Latvia. Reeder is not Jewish, but he found his faith to be an important part of the project.
“The approach I take to this research … is that we do it because of our faith and we do it because we are scientists, as well,” Reeder said. “The world needs to know — and there’s still so much more out there that’s undiscovered.”
“For the good of the historic record, for the good of humanity,” he added, “information about these horrible things needs to be brought into the public light as much as possible.”
The Liepaja graves were sought for decades. The execution of about 25 Jewish men was one of many; the Nazi regime reportedly executed thousands of Jews in Latvia in 1941.
But, one thing was different there: The massacre at Liepaja was filmed by a German soldier — Reinhard Wiener — and that footage, shot on a personal camera, was discovered after World War II.
“It is my understanding that it is the only film of Jews being murdered as part of the Holocaust,” Reeder told the Chronicle. “We have still photos. But, that’s the only film.”
The film shows the Jewish men being driven by trucks to dunes near the coast of the Baltic Sea, Reeder said. The Nazis dug a trench. The men then entered the trench and were shot five or six at a time. Spectators watched.
Today, the site where Reeder’s team found the mass grave — more specifically, a trench-sized hole in the soil that was dug and then refilled — is an industrial park, Reeder said. The land is covered in asphalt; nearby, a company runs a fish processing operation.
A memorial commemorating the site is in the works by Latvian officials, Reeder said.
Reeder first worked in Liepaja in 2022.
“A lot of times … it’s years and years before we feel confident we’ve found something,” Reeder said. “But we were pretty certain after last year that we found what we were looking for.”
Reeder went to Latvia last year without Freund, who was in the final stages of cancer. Instead, Reeder relayed messages and updates daily via phone calls to Freund’s wife, Eliane.
“We wouldn’t be doing this cutting-edge, world-class research that’s changing the way people look at the Holocaust without him,” Reeder said.
This year, for six days, Reeder also worked in the Latvian town of Skede, where it’s believed Nazis executed about 2,800 women and children, leaving them in another mass grave near the Baltic Sea’s coastline.
The truth, Reeder said, is again beneath the soil.
“We (worked to) make a determination whether there was a possibility that the mass grave had been washed out to sea,” he said. “We think it’s still there.”
After working at several biblical sites in Israel 24 years ago, word spread fast of Freund’s and Reeder’s work. They went to work in Poland, then Greece, then Spain. In 2015, they trekked to Lithuania, introducing their work to the Baltics.
Reeder also migrated on this side of the Atlantic. He came to Pittsburgh in 2013 after working as the director of environmental science and policy at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He served as the dean of Duquesne University’s Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences from July 2013 to June 2021.
Today, Reeder teaches — and continues his research.
“Essentially,” he said, “what we do is we use science to write and rewrite the history of the Holocaust.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.