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NOVA: Holocaust Escape Tunnel Coming to OETA this April
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In the heart of Lithuania, what is now a peaceful forest called Ponar was once Ground Zero for Hitler’s Final Solution. Here, before death camps and gas chambers, the Nazis shot as many as 100,000 people, mostly Jews, in systematic executions, and then hid the evidence of the mass murder. In June 2016, the PBS science series NOVA—produced by WGBH Boston—joined an international team of archeologists on an expedition to locate the last traces of a vanished people: the Jews of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, known in colloquial Yiddish as Vilna. In the process, they made an extraordinary find—a hidden escape tunnel dug by Jewish prisoners at the Ponar death pits. In a powerful new film, HOLOCAUST ESCAPE TUNNEL, NOVA reveals the dramatic discovery and shares incredible stories from the descendants of this unique group of Holocaust survivors. The documentary takes viewers on a scientific quest to unveil the secret history of Vilna and shed light on a nearly forgotten chapter of the Holocaust.

NOVA:HOLOCAUST ESCAPE TUNNEL premieres Wednesday, April 19, 2017 at 8 p.m. on OETA—just before International Holocaust Remembrance Day. 

Once known as “the Jerusalem of the North,” Vilna was a thriving epicenter of Jewish culture and learning before the Nazis invaded more than 70 years ago. Ten days after the invasion in June of 1941, the Nazis brought the first groups of Jews to the Ponar Forest, where they lined them up and shot them. Eventually, with the help of a Lithuanian riflery unit, they wiped out 70,000 Jews, along with 30,000 other suspected “undesirables.”

Historians now generally agree that the use of bullets to annihilate Vilna’s Jews in Ponar Forest was part of a critical tipping point that convinced the Nazis that genocide was actually possible and led to the industrial scale extermination in the concentration camps that followed. “This ‘Holocaust by bullets,’ as it's called, is by far the most important part of the Holocaust,” said Timothy Snyder, Professor of History, Yale University. “It’s how it starts. It's how half of the victims die. But it’s also the decisive moment when it is realized that something like this is possible.”

As the Soviets approached to retake Lithuania from the Nazis in 1944, the Germans ordered a so-called “burning brigade” of 80 Jewish prisoners (76 men, 4 women) to exhume and incinerate the corpses in an attempt to hide the evidence.  Over the course of several months, as the job was completed, the prisoners knew they lived on borrowed time and would be the next victims. Fearing that if they did not survive, the story of the horrors perpetrated in Ponar would never be told, they devised a plan: to dig a tunnel, beginning with a single 70 x 65 centimeter hole that the prisoners painstakingly excavated each night.

They dug for 76 nights, using only their hands, spoons and crude improvised tools. On April 15, 1944, the last night of Passover, the shackled prisoners attempted an audacious escape through the narrow, 100-foot-long tunnel. Right below the feet of their Nazi jailors, 12 of them made it out, and 11 survived the war to share their horrific tale among themselves and their families.

Until now, only the tunnel entrance had been located—found by Lithuanian archeologists in 2004 within the burial pit where the prisoners had been housed. Despite efforts, no other evidence of the tunnel’s existence or whether it had been completed had ever been found—and its path remained a mystery—until the expedition team working with NOVA made the stunning find. 

The tunnel discovery jointly announced by NOVA and PBS with the international expedition team in June of 2016 immediately generated news headlines around the world, and the find was designated a top science story of 2016. When children of the tunnel diggers living in the U.S. and Israel saw the stories, they reached out to NOVA. As a result, NOVA interviewed more than a half-dozen descendants of the 11 Holocaust survivors who escaped the Ponar killing pits—including Abe Gol, son of Schlomo Gol, and Hana Amir, daughter of Motke Zaidel, the youngest of the 80 Jewish prisoners. NOVA also spoke with Nikita Farber, the grandson of Yuli Farber, the engineer who helped design the escape tunnel. 

Viewers also meet several Holocaust survivors who lived in Vilna, such as internationally known artist Samuel Bak and Esia Friedman, who vividly recollect life in the beautiful city before the war, while also sharing brutal accounts of the unspeakable horrors and dangers in Vilna’s ghettos, where the city’s remaining Jews were forced after the Nazi invasion.

Led by Dr.Richard Freund, professor of Jewish History, University of Hartford, and Dr. Jon Seligman, of the Antiquities Authority of Israel, the team used non-invasive archeological identification methods and sub-surface geophysical mapping technology—including drone technology, Electrical Resistivity Tomography (ERT), Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), Lidar and advanced software analysis—in order to protect the sanctity of the resting places at the massacre site. They found four other segments on subsequent days, culminating in confirmation of the contours and direction of the escape tunnel. 

“Following a unique group of archeologists whose advanced scientific tools revealed an escape tunnel buried for more than 70 years allowed NOVA to take viewers straight into the heart of the story to learn the truth of what really happened to a vibrant culture that vanished,” said Paula S. Apsell, Senior Executive Producer, NOVA. “While memories may fade as more survivors of this dark era leave us, we now have hard evidence to preserve the historical record for future generations and ensure these tragedies will never be forgotten.”

For Freund and Seligman, the journey to Vilna has been a personal one. Both archeologists had Lithuanian relatives, and several members of Seligman’s family were victims of the Holocaust there. Also on the team are geophysicists Paul Bauman and Alastair McClymont, from Worley Parsons, Inc.'s Advisian Division in Canada; The Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum and Tolerance Center of Lithuania; Harry Jol, geoscientist at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire; and leading cartographer Philip Reeder (Duquesne University,) as well as students and staff. 

In addition to the Ponar Escape Tunnel, NOVA investigates other key excavations in an effort to piece together the story of Vilna’s lost civilization. These include:

Mass Burial Pits
NOVA begins the search where Vilna ended—at the brutal Nazi execution camp known as Ponar. To this day, mass graves containing the remains of Vilna’s people are still missing. NOVA’s cameras follow the research team as they use Lidar analysis to successfully identify and locate at least one previously unknown, unmarked mass burial pit in the forest adjacent to the site, which may hold the remains of as many as 10,000 people. Freund believes there may be as many as five other mass graves still undiscovered in this area.

The Great Synagogue of Vilna
The NOVA film follows the excavation in the heart of the vanished city of the destroyed Great Synagogue, a complex dating back to the 16th century, which once housed the largest Jewish library in the world, kosher meat butchers and a communal well. Destroyed by the Nazis, the ruins were then leveled and erased by the Soviets, who sealed it away by building a school on top of it. Only fragments of its magnificent religious artifacts survive in museums today. In 2011, an excavation had uncovered pieces of the main worship area, including a column base and steps leading to the “bema,” where the sacred Torah is kept. But since most of the worship area is covered by the school building, Seligman, Freund and the team decide to dig a bit further away in the schoolyard. With the help of GPR, they discover a preserved portion of what they believe to be the “mikveh,” the ritual bath where observant Jews carried out purification rites and where the expedition team also found tiles from the large heating stoves, coins and pottery.

Following WWII, the Soviets made a concerted effort to crush the last remnants of Jewish Vilna. The 50-year Soviet period is remembered as one of the darkest chapters of Lithuania’s history. For the tiny community of Jews who remained, it proved to be a second destruction of Vilna as the Soviets began a campaign to erase Jewish history, culture and religion from the city. Other minorities also suffered, but only traces of the once vibrant Jewish Vilna were left.

As time passes, memories of Vilna and its people may fade, but the truth of what happened here has not been forgotten and now, through the proof that science has given us, it will never be erased.

HOLOCAUST ESCAPE TUNNEL is a NOVA production by Lone Wolf Documentary Group for WGBH Boston. Written and directed by Kirk Wolfinger. Writer/producer is Owen Palmquist. Senior producer is Chris Schmidt. Senior executive producer for NOVA is Paula S. Apsell. 

National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and public television viewers. Additional funding is provided by The Steve Perry Foundation.