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.
National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Cancer Treatment Centers of America and 23andMe. 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 for NOVA is provided by Marjie and Robert Kargman and The Steve Perry Foundation.
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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.
The Jewish holiday of Passover, being celebrated now by Jews everywhere, commemorates the exodus of the Jews from slavery in ancient Egypt, as described in the Book of Exodus in the Bible. A conundrum for archaeologists and historians of this period was the near complete lack of any physical or documented evidence for such a mass movement of people from one of the greatest empires in world history. And one thing for sure, agreed upon by all serious archaeologists and historians, is that Mount Sinai in the Southern Sinai Desert certainly is not Mount Sinai of the Bible where Moses received the Ten Commandments.....there is not even a single pottery sherd there that could be dated to within even a few hundreds of years when these tens of thousands of Jewish slaves may have camped there.
In 1954, the Italian archaeologist Dr. Emmauel Anati first came to a mountain in the Negev Desert of Israel, attracted by the spectacularly plentiful presence of ancient rock art in the area. In 1980, Anati returned, and would continue to return for the next 30 years and beyond, convinced that Har Karkom was in fact Mount Sinai.
In early April, 2007, under the direction of Dr. Richard Freund now of the University of Hartford, myself and my colleague, Chris Slater, used geophysics and aerial photography from weather balloons and kites to assist Dr. Anati in his explorations. In fact, we spent Passover and enjoyed our Passover meals beneath the shadow of Har Karkom, partaking heavily of Italian wines and foods - no pasta of course - brought by the Italian archaeologists.
There is a great deal of evidence to support Anati's hypothesis; in fact, in 2010 the Vatican accepted his ideas. I will try to lay out some of the pieces of the puzzle during this Passover holiday.
Some of the more astounding of our finds were geoglyphs - giant rock art visible only from the air, created by removing the overlying weathered rock and revealing the underlying white, unweathered rock. The best preserved of these geoglyphs was that of a wild boar, pictured here.
Now this geoglyph pictures neither an animal that would be in any way considered Kosher, not could be dated any closer to the present then, say, 40,000 to 100,000 years ago. This would be at least more than 35,000 years before the Exodus. But this rich collection of rock art and geoglyphs clearly tells us that ancient peoples have been migrating across this area for tens of thousands of year; and, it is likely that the Israelites would have crossed the Sinai Desert along an established and more secure route such as this one. Geoglyphs, rock art, sacrificial altars, and various monuments all indicate that the environment of Har Karkom has been held in reverence for as long as perhaps 200,000 years.
Of course there were other more recent artifacts that certainly were evocative of the Biblical period, for instance, the pictured rock drawing that could be interpreted as a map of Har Karkom, divided into 12 areas suggesting the twelve Tribes. And even Har Karkom itself, seen in the distance beyond Chris Slater and the magnetometer, eerily evokes the image of the Sphinx, from where the Israelites fled. I will show pull out other images of geoglyphs rock art, artifacts, and intriguing geophysical data over the Passover period.