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.
The NOVA trailer for the work done in Vilinus has finally been relief. Read the teaser published by NOVA, and click on the link below to watch the trailer!
In the heart of Lithuania, a Holocaust secret lies buried. A team of archaeologists probes the ruins of a Nazi death camp to find the truth behind tales of a tunnel dug by desperate Jewish prisoners and their daring escape.
The Holocaust’s Great Escape
A remarkable discovery in Lithuania brings a legendary tale of survival back to life
(click image for article)
We are featured as one of the New York Times' top news stories of 2016! Take a look!
Copy and paste this URL into your browser: http://nyti.ms/2hWADwe
New York Times Science writers have picked the discovery of the Holocaust period escape tunnel, dug by the “Burning Brigade” in the Ponar forest of Lithuania, as one of the top science stories of 2016. The 34 meter tunnel was dug by hand over 76 nights by Jewish slaves assigned to burn 100,000 bodies at the Ponar extermination site (see earlier Facebook posts). The pro bono geophysical work was done by Dr. Alastair McClymont and Paul Bauman from the near surface geophysics group in Calgary, Alberta, under the direction of archaeologists from the University of Hartford, the Israel Antiquities Authority, and the Gaon Museum in Lithuania.
Besides the tunnel, we also identified the original Soviet fuel storage pit used for the mass burial of the initial 25,000 victims, the intact sub-levels of the “Great Synagogue” in Vilnius ransacked by the Nazis and later razed to the ground by the Soviets, and an individual and likely very significant grave inside the Rasu Prison that only 3 weeks ago was excavated and the tooth of a skeleton was removed, and is presently undergoing DNA analysis (more to come!).
Below is a link to an earlier interview with Paul Bauman by the National Post, the link to the original New York Times Science Section article, and the link to the recent top 2016 science article retrospective. Paul and Alastair will be back in Lithuania in July doing pro bono investigations at other mass burial sites, particularly in Kaunas, the capital of Lithuania during the period between World War I and World War II.
Unfortunately, and even tragically, the even more impressive and important water exploration pro bono work that 7 geophysicists (Erin Ernst, Randy Shinduke, Doug MacLean, Paul Bauman, Landon Woods, Coln Miazga, and Franklin Koch) from the Calgary office carried out in the Kakuma Refugee Camp and the Turkana Desert of northwest Kenya did not receive similar international media attention – though perhaps it will this year as the ongoing regional refugee crises become a worldwide calamity.
For the NY Times "Science News that Stuck with us in 2016", copy and paste this URL into your browser:
Trudeau's visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp on Sunday July 10, and Canada's Supreme Court ruling in favor of Helmut Oberlander, the roving death squad Einsatzkommando member, all seem good reasons to post this interview on As It Happens between Laura Lynch and Paul Bauman.
Don't believe what I write about Ponar. Listen or read the translation of what tunneler and Holocaust survivor Mordechai Zeidel says about Ponar and his escape.
Because this is an interview with me rather than a report made from a news feed, I believe it is one of the better, and certainly more accurate articles to come out on the tunnel discovery and Ponar. Of course, I also like that there are two photos of me!
What geophysicist would not brag about being reported on in the New York Times Science Section?! Though surprisingly, it's not the best or most accurate of the articles. You can view the dramatic WGBH NOVA movie trailer for the upcoming documentary on Ponar and the story of the Jews of Vilna (Vilnius).
Paul speaking about the discovery of the Burning Brigade escape tunnel on CBC News, the last 3 minutes from 27 to 30 in the broadcast. Alastair and I are gratified that the discovery of the tunnel has awakened interest in the Burning Brigade, and their unstoppable desire to fight back and survive to tell their story.
An article about the tunnel discovery was published today in Israel's leading newspaper, HaAretz. Because of the ties of so many Jews and Israelis to the Holocaust and the Jewish communities of Europe in general, and Vilnius in particular, the tunnel discovery is a very big deal in Israel. The Israel Antiquities Authority, lead by one of the Directors, Dr. Jon Seligman, was one of the leading partners in the project, and a pleasure to work with!
Check out the riveting Press Release/movie trailer (though the movie will not be completed until 2017) of NOVA's documenting of the pre-1941 Jewish community of Vilnius, the beginning of the Holocaust In Lithuania and at Poneriai, and of course the tunnel escape!!
Don't believe what I write about Ponar. Listen or read the translation of what tunneler and Holocaust survivor Mordechai Zeidel says about Ponar and his escape.
How often does one get a chance to meet one's heroes, especially years after their deaths! Last Thursday, kilometers outside of Vilnius, in the darkest and most spooky of Baltic forests, some time between midnight and 2 AM, running through the forest with gun shots ringing among the trees, I met Szolma Gol, Isaac Dogim, Yudi Faber (aka Farber, aka Farberis). I feel I know them all a bit as I have read portions of the testimonies from the tunnel escape from Pit 6 in Poneriai, or as best as one can read a Google translation of Russian. All were of the Burning Brigade, and all were supermen and superwomen (there were 4 women in the Burning Brigade) living off of bread crusts and potato porridge blended with straw and ice and mud. Gol's testimony is particularly memorable as he was a body counter, a required bit of bookkeeping of the SS at Poneriai as the Burning Brigade removed an estimated 68,000 corpses and burnt them to ashes in pyramids of thousands of bodies and logs. Gol committed to the escape when he found the body of his brother, recognizing the identity card. Dogim, along with Faber, was one of the masterminds. Dogim stumbled on his wife's corpse which he recognized by a medallion, along with the bodies of his mother and two sisters. At that point, he realized he had nothing left to live for, but no reason to worry about dying.
Faber's testimony is particularly moving. Captured in the Soviet Army in the fall of 1941, he and 8000 Red Army comrades endured horrific conditions as prisoners of war near Vilnius. He recounts how 50 or more would die daily from typhus or cold or starvation. Recognized as a Jew, Faber was sent to Poneriai as part of the Burning Brigade. Faber describes in detail the living conditions and the work, but he never shows any indication that he doubted he would get out alive, even after working all day with the dead. He engineered the tunneling, chose the directions and angles, designed the supports, wired in electricity for light, organized the escapees on that final dark night of April 15th, cut the wire fences, hung a white rag to guide the others through the gap, pulled the escapees who could not swim across the river, and finally a week later told his story to Abba Kovner and the Jewish partisans with whom he connected.
Very, very early Friday morning, June 17, NOVA filmed a reenactment of the tunnel escape. Even though each episode required a few takes, the long evening only made the excitement build. As in real life, not all the actors made it through the night alive. I cannot imagine how those many hours of drama will be distilled into a few minutes. I can already highly recommend the movie!