On October 29th, Alastair McClymont, Colin Miazga, Eric Johnson, Chris Slater, and Paul Bauman left Calgary and Vancouver with 24 pieces of baggage, most weighing 32 kg, for a two week water exploration program for the Rohingya Refugees in southeast Bangladesh. We left before the sun rose on Thursday, arrived in Dhaka after midnight on Saturday (minus three boxes of cables), and were menage a trois with UNHCR and Oxfam logisticians and WASH (WAter, Sanitation, and Hygiene) officers by Sunday afternoon. There was a lot to sort out – where would we go, how would we get there, and what exactly would we do.
Jet lagged with the 12 hour time difference and the stress of moving 560 kg of baggage from Calgary to Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh, and none of us speaking a word of Bengali or Bangla as they often call the language, we worked in the more bucolic areas near, but outside the Nayapara and Leda Camps on Monday and Tuesday. Today, November 3, we began exploring for water on the edges of the camps themselves, beginning with Leda.
The geology has already pulled a few surprises, but so have the Teknaf Peninsula of Bangladesh and the people that live there, including the Rohingya refugees. We are just beginning to figure out the geology; and, we are just beginning to comprehend what has happened in Myanmar since August 25th, and what is now going on within the now 850,000 person Rohingya refugee population in the southeastern most corner of Bangladesh.
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!
click here to experience!
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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This is an 8 minute interview Paul Bauman gave on CBC radio on the afternoon of April 18, the last day of Passover, and the anniversary of the Tunnel Escape. Doug Dirks is an excellent radio host, though of course the background dates he gave were a bit off. The use of Ponary as an extermination camp began in early July 1941, and the Escape Tunnel was dug from early February to mid-April 1944.
An interesting and important article forwarded to me by two missionary water well drillers from Alaska I met on a desert run in Turkana. As there is no Islamic terrorism and likely Donald Trump is unfamiliar with the Turkana, the drought and famine there are not in the news as they somewhat are in Yemen, Somalia, and neighbouring South Sudan. The very expensive 2013 survey referred to in the article was a highly flawed exploration program whose overly optimistic and unsupported results were reported in the New York Times, BBC and other media, and created false expectations all over the Turkana and Kenya. In contrast, while I am not a supporter of any missionary activities anywhere, it is remarkable what 2 Alaskan water well drillers can accomplish with so few financial resources. I was, and continue to be impressed with what Larry and Joyce are accomplishing.
This article appeared in today's issue of the Times of Israel, announcing NOVA's April 19 premier of "Holocaust Escape Tunnel" on all PBS stations in the United States.
Besides locating the Escape Tunnel from Pit 6 (where the "Burning Brigade" was confined, and what we call "Soviet Pit 1" (the first and largest of the extermination pits), we better pinpointed what we believe is the trench in the photograph. Alastair McClymont and Paul Bauman used electrical imaging to identify the fill material in the trench. We created a very high resolution digital elevation model (DEM) with contours of about 2 centimeters so as to see the subtle but distinct linear subsidence of the earth associated with the trench. And we used induced polarization to identify metal objects in the trench.
The victims were blindfolded, and marched through the trench into Soviet Pit 1. The archaeologists believed that as the victims heard gunshots from the Pit, and knew that they were being marched to their deaths, they would have emptied their pockets of their few remaining and most personal belongings, hoping that some day they would be found. As such, small metal objects identified in the geophysical surveys may provide more information about who these people were, and what was of greatest importance to them during their last few living moments.
Later, the Nazis and collaborating Lithuanians abandoned the use of the trench, and simply marched Jews directly into the pits, or up to the edge of the pits, and usually shot them in groups of tens.
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