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!