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NOVA: Holocaust Escape Tunnel

Airs Wednesday, April 11, 2018 at 9 p.m. & Sunday, April 15 at 2 p.m. on KPBS TV

Ponary, Poland, Jews digging a trench in which they were later buried, after ...

Credit: Courtesy of Yad Vashem

Above: Ponary, Poland, Jews digging a trench in which they were later buried, after being shot. (undated photo)

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, NOVA 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.

Holocaust Escape Tunnel Revealed

Archaeologists have found a long-rumored escape tunnel in "the Jerusalem of Lithuania."

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: Preview 1

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.

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.”

Photo credit: Courtesy of Yad Vashem

Ponary, Poland, the unfinished fuel tank site, which was used as an execution site for Jews from the Vilna region. (undated photo)

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.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Ezra Wolfinger for WGBH

The infamous Burning Pit, the location used by the Nazi’s to burn the remains of their Jewish victims in order to rid themselves of all 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.

Holocaust Survival Tale: Haim

Zalman Matzkin narrowly escaped the Holocaust in Lithuania, managing to build a new life.

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.

How They Survived the Holocaust: Abraham's Father

In Lithuania during WWII, Abraham Gol’s father led Jewish prisoners in a tunnel escape.

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.

Holocaust Survival Tale: Esia

Esia Friedman tells the story of how her family made it through the Holocaust alive.

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.

Holocaust Escape Tunnel Q&A with Historians and Filmmakers

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.

“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 at 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.


This full episode is available to stream on demand.

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A NOVA production by Lone Wolf Documentary Group for WGBH Boston. Written and directed by Kirk Wolfinger. Writer/producer is Owen Palmquist. Senior producer is Chris Schmidt. Senior executive producer for NOVA is Paula S. Apsell.


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