January 24, 2019

‘Holocaust Escape Tunnel’ Story Uncovered

If “GI Jews” tells the story of tough, trained American Jewish soldiers battling Hitler’s army, a companion piece deals with a more familiar account of enslaved Jews trying to escape the horrors of Nazi brutality.

PBS will air the two aspects of World War II on April 11, with “Holocaust Escape Tunnel” starting at 9 p.m., followed by “GI Jews” at 10 p.m. The first documentary, linking one of the incredible escape stories of that era to breakthrough scientific techniques, is set in and around Vilna, the Yiddish and Hebrew designation for Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.

At its peak, before World War II and the Holocaust, Vilna was known as “the Jerusalem of the North” and described as the focal point of Jewish civilization, with famous yeshivas, rabbis and scholars. It boasted a Jewish population of some 77,000, 105 synagogues, the largest Jewish library in the world and six daily Jewish newspapers.

The vigorous Jewish life in Vilna started to decline in 1940, when the Soviet Union absorbed Lithuania, and was almost completely destroyed after German armies attacked Russia in 1941, quickly conquering Lithuania. Within a year, Nazi bullets — in the days before Auschwitz-type gas chambers — were used to kill most of the Jews. Their corpses were thrown into huge pits in the nearby Ponar Forest, initially dug by the Soviets to store fuel and ammunition. One pit alone held between 20,000 and 25,000 corpses.

In late 1943, with Russian armies advancing from the east and partisans attacking German supply lines in surrounding forests, the Germans decided to cover up the monumental massacre by ordering that all the bodies be cremated.

“The exposure of this tunnel enables us to present not only the horrors of the Holocaust but also the yearning for life.” — Jon Seligman

The Germans forced the region’s surviving Jews, and some Russian prisoners of war, to first chop down large trees in the forests, cut them into planks, form huge layers of wood, spread the bodies between the layers and then set them aflame. Methodically, the Germans formed 10 “Burning Brigades,” each consisting of 80 prisoners, mainly Jewish. After a day’s work, the “burners” were held in pits and their feet shackled. One such unit, consisting of 76 men and four women, decided that it was their duty to pass on the truth to the world and future generations.

The prisoners freed their legs by cutting the shackles with a smuggled file and for the next 76 days, using only spoons and their hands, carved out a 2-by-2-foot-wide tunnel, extending 130 feet.

The last day of Passover, April 15, 1944, was set for the escape. As the first prisoners left the tunnel, guards opened fire and killed almost the entire group. However, 12 made it out, cut through the wire fence, and joined a detachment of partisans, commanded by the legendary Jewish resistance leader Abba Kovner.

At the end of the war, all but one of the escapees were still alive and eventually settled elsewhere, mainly in pre-state Israel and the United States.

Among the thousands, if not millions, of post-Holocaust remembrances, the story of the Vilna escapees was met with widespread skepticism, even by the future wives and children of the 11 survivors. That skepticism was fueled by the absence of any physical evidence of the alleged tunnel. Lithuanians, already beleaguered by charges of their country’s wartime collaboration with the Germans, showed little enthusiasm for further investigations.

In recent years, with a change of attitude by a new generation of Lithuanians, their government was ready to seek the truth about the Holocaust and to invite outside experts to participate in the endeavor. An initial contact was Jon Seligman, a leading researcher with the Israel Antiquities Authority. Another interested person was historian Richard A. Freund of the University of Hartford. Freund was well qualified for the task, having directed archaeological projects for the university at the Sobibór extermination camp in Poland, as well as at six ancient sites in Israel.

In 2014, the two scholars decided to cooperate on the project, spurred by the their similar ancestral descent from Vilna Jews. Both had initially set their sights on exploring the fate of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, once the center of Jewish worship and scholarship, which had been destroyed by the Germans. Later, the Soviets razed the remains and built a school on the site.

The two scholars, backed by other experts and by teams of young Jewish and gentile volunteers — including large contingents from the University of Wisconsin — made some dramatic discoveries at the Great Synagogue site, but they were also intrigued by accounts of the escape tunnel. In approaching the latter research task, the project leaders ruled out using the traditional method of digging into an archeological site with spades and machines.

“Traditional archaeology uses a highly destructive method,” Freund said in an interview. “You only have one chance to get it right and you can’t repeat an experiment. Additionally, in our case, we were determined not to desecrate the site and victimize the dead a second time.”

Instead, the teams used two noninvasive techniques, widely employed in gas and oil explorations. One approach was through ground-penetrating radar (GPR), which uses radar pulses to return images of objects found beneath the earth’s surface. The results were analyzed in Los Angeles by geophysicist Dean Goodman, who developed the GPR software.

In the second approach, called electrical resistivity tomography (ETR), scientists investigate sub-surface materials through their electrical properties. The same technique is widely used in medical imaging of the human body.

Thanks to these techniques, in 2016 the investigators were able to scientifically confirm the existence and dimensions of the wartime escape tunnel. The feat was listed by The New York Times as one of the top science stories of the year.

One of the successful tunnel escapees, Shlomo Gol, managed to keep a written record of his experiences, which was later translated into English by his son, Abraham (Abe) Gol, after the family moved to the United States.

Amid the darkness of the era in Vilna were rare flashes of light. One of the brightest, Freund said, was Maj. Karl Blagge, who was in charge of a large German military facility on the outskirts of Vilna that maintained and repaired military vehicles. Although an early member of the Nazi party, his scientific mind led him to reject Hitler’s racial stereotypes of Jews and anti-Semitic policies. Blagge took enormous risks to protect the facility’s 1,240 Jewish forced workers — more than half of them women and children — against the SS killing squads. He did not always succeed, but his efforts and risks equaled, if not exceeded, those of the more famous Oskar Schindler. Blagge is commemorated as a Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

At the time of the tunnel’s discovery, Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority wrote, “As an Israeli whose family originated in Lithuania, I was reduced to tears on the discovery of the escape tunnel at Ponar. This discovery is a heartwarming witness to the victory of hope over desperation. The exposure of this tunnel enables us to present not only the horrors of the Holocaust but also the yearning for life.”