How does one find and map mass graves from more than 75 years ago? As with Daesh (aka IS or ISIS or the Islamic State) and the Yazidis, the Nazis were both thorough and secretive. In many of the shtetls (small Jewish villages of Eastern Europe) of Lithuania, there were simply no survivors to provide eyewitness accounts. 174 Holocaust mass graves have been documented in Lithuania by the Catholic Priest Patrick Desbois, more than 200 by the Jewish community in Lithuania, and there are likely many more undocumented mass burials. What survivors that may still be alive today would certainly have been very young in the period of 1941 through 1944. Similar to the situation of the marooned astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) faced on Mars, we are simply “going to have to science the shit out of this.”
Each site will be quite different, but we have laid out a multi-step process for ourselves. We will try to throw everything at the first and largest of these sites, Fort IX in Kaunas, where an estimated 45,000 to 50,000 Jews were executed. And in some ways, the approach will not be much different from any old geoscience investigation.
When the Soviets had the German Army retreating into the Baltics in 1944, the Luftwaffe carried out intensive aerial photography over Lithuania and elsewhere along the Russian front. The Western allies captured about 1,250,000 of these photos, and all were declassified after the end of the Cold War in the 1990s. So, air photo interpretation is an early step.
Reading testimonies, interviews, and eyewitness accounts is a second step. In Fort IX, not only do we have the accounts of the 64 Jewish slaves from the 1943 Christmas day escape, but we have other obscure but astounding accounts such as “The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry.” The Black Book is a collection of diaries, testimonies, and letters compiled during the war by two accomplished Russian authors, Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman.
At Fort IX, in the 1960’s, the Lithuanians carried out limited excavations of the mass graves, and even assembled a map of the burial trench layouts…though without a scale, coordinates, or even the cardinal directions. We (actually, a Lithuanian Professor in Calgary) are presently translating the excavation notes, and trying to make sense of the maps.
From July 8 through 13, we hope to throw everything we have, geophysically, at the euphemistically Nazi termed “battlefield” of Fort IX…an air and ground assault….radar, magnetics, resistivity, electromagnetics, sensors flown from drones, etc…
At Fort IX, there will be no excavations, but we hope to do a soil geochemistry program that will act as a proxy for exposing human remains, something that is forbidden in any of the Jewish Holocaust burials. By correlating the testimonies to the air photos to the limited excavations of the 1960’s, and all of that to the geophysical images and soil chemistry, we are hopeful that we can precisely delineate the 15 burial trenches described by the surviving members of the Burning Brigade.
From 1941 to 1944, about 45,000 Jews were shot and buried alive in fourteen 100 m long trenches here at Fort IX in Kaunas (or Kovno in Yiddish), Lithuania. The killing continued until 75 years ago, almost to the day, as the Kovno Ghetto was liquidated from July 8 through 13, 1944. Even after three years of mass murder and deportations, there were still 30,000 or so Jews living in the Ghetto. About 400 survived the liquidation.
"Liquidation" meant blowing up every brick building, block by block, and setting fire to the wooden buildings and whatever else was standing on July 12, 1944. Later photographs of the Ghetto showed only scattered chimneys remaining. This final act of destruction of the ghettos, the Lithuanian Jewish community, and much of the remains of an entire culture was precipitated by the approaching Soviet army and the Nazi's perverted persistence in completing the evil task they had set for themselves. Few Lithuanians, though, would describe the Russians and the 45 following years of oppression as liberators or liberation.
Wednesday, July 10, and today, Thursday, July 11, thirteen of us have been trying to figure out exactly where the burial trenches are at Fort IX, how the site was altered by the Soviets after "liberation," and what methods are effective in identifying and mapping mass graves.Geoscientists Without Borders is the main supporter of our work, along with University of Hartford Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studieswho have supported us in past projects. Alastair McClymont, Colin Miazga, Paul Bauman, and Chris Slater are the four lead geophysicists from Advisian - Worley Group. Harry Jol and his six undergraduate students from the UWEC (University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire) are here to learn with as well as to assist us as co-investigators. The students are in the departments of Environmental Geography and Geospatial Studies. Dean of Science from Duquesne University, Dr. Phil Reeder, a cartographer by training, is helping with the mapping. And Professor Richard Freund, formerly from the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford, and recently relocated to Christopher Newport University in Virginia, is the historian and archaeologist providing an overall direction to this project. Paul Bauman Geophysics is of course providing, at no cost, an unusually large suite of geophysics instruments....18 pieces of 23 and 32 kilograms in fact. Every day feels a bit like a university field school, except instead of looking for minerals or oil, we are mapping what I like to think of as history.
Josie Bauman Photography is not only documenting our work, but providing some documentation of artifacts and journals in the Fort IX archives, and shooting some photographs to promote the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liquidation of the Kovno Ghetto, being memorialized this weekend at the Ninth Fort.
Over the next few days, there may appear the largest concentration of "Litvaks," that is, Jews of Lithuanian origin, anywhere in the world outside of Israel or the United States.
Yesterday, while we were working, an elderly but robust man with a group of 25 or so much younger people interrupted me to ask what we were doing. I was very pleased to lower the 25 kilogram lead marine battery from my shoulders and to describe our project. I assumed he was a tour guide and Kovno Ghetto survivor. I was wrong. Of the 5000 or so Jews who were imprisoned in the Siauliai (Shavli in Yiddish) Ghetto to the north of Kaunas, he was one of about 500 that survived the liquidation, was transported by train to the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland, and survived that as well. He was traveling through Kaunas on his way to the 75th year commemoration of the liquidation of the Shavli Ghetto also in July 1944. He was accompanied by, and leading his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.
We carried out geophysical and drone imagery surveys at Fort 9 in Kaunas last Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, July 10 through 12. But we drove the 90 minutes back to Kaunas and Fort 9 on the Sunday for the commemoration of the liquidation of the Kaunas (Kovno in Yiddish) Ghetto 75 years ago.
On June 22, 1941, the Germans attacked the Soviet Union and entered Lithuania. One day later, on June 23, the Germans entered Kovno, leaving no time for the City’s Jewish population of 35,000 to flee. On July 10, the mayor and military commander of Kovno declared the establishment of a Jewish Ghetto in the impoverished suburb of Slobodka on the north side of the Neris river from Kovno. The Jewish population of Slobodka swelled from 6,000 to 35,000.
As a ghetto, the Jews were sequestered as slave labour in horrendously overcrowded conditions. In late October of 1943, the conditions became much worse when the Germans transformed the Ghetto into a concentration camp. As a concentration camp, any fantastical Nazi pretenses of cloistering Jews for their own protection were discarded. The very young and elderly were transported to Auschwitz and gassed. 2,800 young men and women were deported to slave labour camps Estonia. Only Jews capable of working, were kept alive in the Ghetto.
At the same time of the transformation of the Kovno Ghetto into a concentration camp, the Nazis used 64 Jews from the Ghetto, from Jewish POWs in the Red Army, and fromJewish partisan groups, to begin to exhume the 50,000 or so mass burials at Fort 9, to burn the bodies, to crush the bones, and to bury or scatter the ashes.
As Soviet forces approached Kaunas, and being intent on not leaving a single Jew alive of the surviving 8,000, the Germans found resources to deport remaining Jews to the Dachau and Stutthof concentration camps. On July 11, the Germans began to systematically destroy Kovno, shooting anyone that tried to flee the Ghetto. On July 12, they set Kovno on fire. Each of the approximate 400 survivors had stories of hiding themselves in secret spaces (malinas) dug below the floors or in basements, smuggling themselves out of the Ghetto, or simply fleeing on foot. The Red Army entered Kovno on August 1, 1944.
At the ceremony, a few survivors of the Kovno Ghetto, largely from Israel, returned to the killing site at Ninth Fort where we have been working, and where the ceremony was held. There were also a few hundred children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of these survivors. Many Lithuanians, including from Kaunas, from the Fort 9 Museum, and from the government were also present.
Of all the speeches…and of course we understood none of the Lithuanian, very little of the Yiddish, most of the Hebrew…the most powerful for me was from the first resident Ambassador from Israel to Lithuania, Amir Maimon. Besides speaking in English, Maimon also gave a personal anecdote which clearly explained why we were carrying out geophysical surveys at this place of death. Some time earlier Maimon had come to Fort 9 with his son. “I saw with my very own eyes a newly married couple coming here to take pictures. How can it be that a couple, on the happiest day of their lives, come to this place of tragedy. The answer is very simple; they simply do not know.” And so here we are, trying to better understand, if not why, at least exactly where these mass murders and burials occurred, so that they can be demarcated, protected, memorialized, and perhaps serve as a cautionary narrative.
PBS/NOVA has picked up the film "The Good Nazi" for viewing on all Public Broadcasting Stations in the United States. My understanding is that NOVA, being a science documentary series, will expand the science portion a bit. In Canada, the original production of "The Good Nazi", will show on Vision One. Dates and times have yet to be announced.
The trailer is riveting! I have not seen the film, but my understanding is that the cinematography is exquisite, and the personal story lines of child survivor Sidney Handler, author Michael Good, and Major Plagge are very powerful....and some good geophysics of course.
When the sun sets tomorrow, the evening of Wednesday April 11, Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) will begin and continue until the evening of April 12. In Israel, Yom HaShoah is truly solemn, most dramatically illustrated by the 10 AM siren where everything stops for 2 minutes, and even the highways are quiet with thousands of people standing outside their vehicles in silence and pensive thought.
At 9:30 PM on April 11th in Israel, on KAN Channel 11, a movie my colleague Alastair McClymont and I worked on will premier, “The Good Nazi.” The movie will depict the war time efforts of a Nazi and Wermacht officer, Major Karl Plagge, to save Jews from the Vilna Ghetto in Lithuania by issuing them work permits to labor in the motor vehicle workshop HKP unite 562. He even had a famous list of the Jews he tried to keep alive, like Oskar Schindler's List. You will have to see the movie, though, to decide for yourself if he really was a good Nazi.
Also showing in Israel the evening of the 11th, for the first time, is the Hebrew language version of “Holocaust Escape Tunnel.” This movie will also show on NOVA l PBS, at 9 PM, on all PBS stations across the United States. Holocaust Escape Tunnel, which premiered a year ago, describes the end of Jewish life in Lithuania, the beginning of the Holocaust, and the truly unbelievable escape of the “Burning Brigade” from the Ponar extermination site.
Sponsored by Dr. Richard Freund and the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at University of Hartford, Alastair and I worked at both sites. As the movie “Holocaust Escape Tunnel” describes, at Ponar, we discovered the then near mythical escape tunnel. I have not seen “The Good Nazi” as it is premiering in Israel, but at HKP 562, we used some of our techniques honed in Colombia from “Finding Escobar’s Millions” to search for the “malinas,” or hiding places the Jews built to conceal themselves from the SS when the Germans retreated from Vilna.
At HKP 562, Alastair and I had an enthusiastic geophysics crew of Merav David from the University of Harford, Josie Bauman from Quest University Canada, Abe Gol (the son of Shlomo Gol, one of the leaders of the Ponar tunnel diggers), and Abe’s cousin Johny. I know we are all very proud to have played some part in telling these stories, and are very grateful that NOVA and Associated Producers supported the high quality production that these two movies surely manifest.
July 19 to 21 we imaged structures beneath the Great Synagogue of Vilnius. This week, beginning Sunday, July 30, we will look for the “malines” or hiding places in the Nazi motor pool HKP 562. Discovery Channel and BBC will be producing a documentary.
In the intervening week, we have been in Kaunas trying to map mass burials at Forts IX, VII, and IV, as well as a possible mass burial at the Jewish Cemetery of Kaunas. In 1939, Kaunas was the capital of Lithuania, with about 40,000 Jews and 40 synagogues, about one quarter of the City’s population. The killing of Jews began on June 23, 1941, two days before the Nazis entered Kaunas. But it was between July 1941 and 1944 that the Nazis organized the extermination of the Jewish population of Kaunas, as well as of other Jews brought from as far away as France into the city to be killed.
Most of the killings occurred at 3 czarist period forts built be the Russians. These 3 forts, Forts IV, VII, and IX, were part of a system of 9 massive, but obsolete czarist forts ringing Kaunas and constructed between the 1850s until World War I. The Nazis viewed these structures as readymade extermination sites – outside the main town, with walls and prisons for concentrating Jews, walls against which victims could be shot, moats where victims could be buried. This was the beginning of the "Holocaust by Bullets", long before mechanized extermination by gassing.
The Nazis began their murders at Fort IV, with a few thousand executions of leaders of the Jewish community from Kaunas, other towns in Lithuania, and elsewhere – political leaders, educated persons, professionals, teachers, entrepreneurs, etc. But marching people up the hill to Fort IV was inconvenient. The killings continued at Fort VII, but this location was too close to the city and too far from the Jewish Ghetto.
Most of the killings occurred at Fort IX which was more isolated, but closer to the Ghetto. About 50,000 persons were executed there, with approximately 30,000 being Jews. 9,200 Jews were executed in a single day by the mobile killing unit German Einsatzkommando 3 and Lithuanian Police, termed the Great Action of October 29, 1941. Within 6 months of the Nazis entering Kaunas, half the Jewish population was dead.
As at Ponar, in 1943, the Nazis organized a “Burning Brigade” to exhume corpses, burn the bodies, and scatter the ashes. The Jewish slaves were given euphemistic names to their tasks: diggers, porters, and firemen. The field of corpse-filled trenches was called the battlefield.
On Christmas Day, 1943, the entire Burning Brigade of 63 Jews and one Polish woman made a well planned and daring escape. While the guards were drunk, they removed a pre-cut cell bar, opened all the cells with a key they had manufactured, crawled through a small opening in a heavy steel door they had previously cut over a period of weeks, traveled through 2 tunnels, passed underneath a guard tower concealed by white sheets, and scaled a 6.5 m wall with a pre-fabricated ladder they had made.
37 of the escapees fled to the forest and were eventually tracked down and killed. 27 returned to the Kaunas Ghetto and hid in plain site. 11 survived until the end of the war.
But the killing and the burning continued. One of the last group of doomed prisoners was Convoy 73 with about 900 French Jews. Their last words are scratched into the walls in the dungeons of Fort IX.
At Fort IX, we were trying to use aerial photography and non-intrusive geophysics to delineate the exact locations, lateral extents, and depths of the burial trenches so that they will be marked and remembered, but remain undisturbed.
We have all heard of Oskar Schindler, and seen and loved Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie Schindler’s List. But who has ever heard of the Wermacht officer Major Karl Plagge?
Major Plagge, an early member of the Nazi Party from 1931, was in charge of the Heeres Kraftfahr Park, better known as the HKP labor camp. From 1941 to mid-1944, Plagge commanded vehicle workshop HKP unit 562. 2500 people laboured at the various unit 562 Wermacht vehicle repair shops in Vilnius. Like Oskar Schindler, Karl Plagge issued work permits to as many Jews as possible, pulling them and their families out of the Vilna Ghetto and giving them a chance to survive the ultimate liquidation of the Ghetto.
The workers lived in two apartment buildings at Subaciaus Street, numbers 47 and 49. When Plagge knew that the German forces were in retreat from Stalingrad, and the SS death squads would inevitably execute the approximate 1200 Jews at HKP, he surreptitiously warned the Jewish forced laborers. The Jews built hiding places called malines – tunnels, hidden cellars, rooms behind false walls and under staircases, etc.
On July 3, 1944, an SS death squad entered HKP. About 500 Jews appeared at roll call and were sent to the Ponar extermination camp described in NOVA’s documentary “Holocaust Escape Tunnel.” The SS searched and found about half of the others, who were also executed. But approximately 250 survived their concealment, the largest single group of Jews to survive the liquidation of Vilna’s Jewish population.
The two buildings at Subaciaus Street 47 and 49 still stand, and are still occupied. Alastair McClymont and Paul Bauman will be using our tradecraft to search for the hiding places or malines, and to search for Jewish mass burials at the HKP site. We will be guided and aided by Lithuanian and American archaeologists, an 82 year old survivor of HKP and a maline, and the author of “The Search for Major Plagge,” Dr. Michael Good.
Friday, July 21, Dr. Richard Freund, a Lithuanian archaeologist, Alastair, and Paul Bauman did a preliminary scout of the HKP camp. We will begin our work at HKP in a week. Discovery Channel along with BBC will make a move about the search along with the background, the survivors, the story of HKP, and of course the story of the Nazi officer Major Karl Plagge.
Alastair McClymont and I arrived in Lithuania on July 19. We are here once again to continue to support Lithuanian, Israeli, and American archaeologists and their students who are investigating Holocaust related sites in Vilnius and Kaunas. On Thursday July 20 and Friday July 21 we carried on from our June 2016 work at the Great Synagogue site, using electrical resistivity tomography and drone photography to try to discover the remaining subsurface architecture of the Synagogue and the bath house.
The Great Synagogue was the largest and most important of the 140 synagogues and prayer houses that stood in Vilnius before 1941. Only a single synagogue, the Choral Synagogue, survived the War. The Great Synagogue was ransacked in 1941 by the Nazis, and levelled to the ground by the Soviets in 1957. In 1964, the Soviets built an elementary school over the site.
As described in the NOVA documentary Holocaust Escape Tunnel, last year we somewhat speculated that we were in the mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath house. However the archaeologists are now 100% confident – they have excavated two actual mikvehs (Hebrew plural mikvaot), likely one for men and one for women. Which is which? There is no way to tell, as they are identical, and as bathing suits are not worn in the mikveh, there will be no telltale bathing garments left behind.
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This is an "immersive" virtual reality experience created by NOVA regarding the Ponar Extermination Site. Watch it on your phone to fully enjoy the experience!
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PBS SCIENCE SERIES NOVA AND INTERNATIONAL EXPEDITION TEAM MAKE EXTRAORDINARY DISCOVERY ON MISSION TO REVEAL HIDDEN SECRETS OF THE HOLOCAUST
NOVA: HOLOCAUST ESCAPE TUNNEL
Premieres Wednesday, April 19, 2017 at 9PM/8c on PBS
(check local listings)
BOSTON, MA – 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 9PM ET/8C on PBS--just before International Holocaust Remembrance Day (check local listings).
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 Media for WGBH Boston. Written and directed by Kirk Wolfinger. Co-director is Paula S. Apsell. Writer/producer is Owen Palmquist. Senior producer is Chris Schmidt. Senior executive producer for NOVA is Paula S. Apsell.
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