Holocaust Escape Tunnel

by Nova PBS April 3, 2017


nova-holocaust-filmOnce 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 killed 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.”

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.

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 entrance of the tunnel had been located, found by Lithuanian archeologists in 2004 within the burial pit where the prisoners had been housed.

NOVA interviewed more than a half-dozen descendants of the 11 Holocaust survivors whose fathers 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.

“Holocaust Escape Tunnel” premieres on Wednesday, April 19. Check local listings for timing.


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