Holocaust Escape Tunnel
At ground zero for the final solution, scientists uncover a story of hope and bravery. Airing April 11, 2018 at 9 pm on PBS Aired April 11, 2018 on PBS
- Originally aired 04.19.17
For centuries, the Lithuanian city of Vilna was one of the most important Jewish centers in the world, earning the title “Jerusalem of the North” until World War II, when the Nazis murdered about 95% of its Jewish population and reduced its synagogues and cultural institutions to ruins. The Soviets finished the job, paving over the remnants of Vilna’s famous Great Synagogue so thoroughly that few today know it ever existed. Now, an international team of archaeologists is trying to rediscover this forgotten world, excavating the remains of its Great Synagogue and searching for proof of one of Vilna’s greatest secrets: a lost escape tunnel dug by Jewish prisoners inside a horrific Nazi execution site.
Holocaust Escape Tunnel
PBS Airdate: April 19, 2017
NARRATOR: In the heart of Lithuania, archaeologists search for a tunnel, rumored to have been dug by desperate Jewish prisoners, inside a little known Nazi execution site, called Ponar.
RICHARD FREUND (University of Hartford): They were systematically exterminating people at this site.
ABE GOL (Son of Ponar Survivor): Once you get taken away, you go to Ponar to die. Nobody comes out of Ponar alive.
Let's look at the I.P. that we get.
NARRATOR: The investigation will open a nearly forgotten chapter of the Holocaust. The story of Vilna, a renowned center of Jewish culture, destroyed by the Nazis. Now, a team of scientists from around the world has come here…
PAUL BAUMAN (WorleyParsons): Could be a trench, could be a pit.
NARRATOR: …searching for the last traces of a vanished people.
RICHARD FREUND: Where's the grave here?
NARRATOR: Who were they?
AVINOAM PATT (University of Hartford): Vilna was one of the most important cities in Jewish history.
RICHARD FREUND: It had the greatest scholars; it had the greatest writers.
NARRATOR: Armed with advanced scientific tools, their work will help restore the memory of this lost world and something more…
ALASTAIR McCLYMONT (WorleyParsons): We're picking up two hotspots.
NARRATOR: …a story of hope in the city's final hours. But time is running out. Few remain who remember. Is there anything left to be found?
RICHARD FREUND: There is something there.
NARRATOR: The secret history of Vilna and the legendary Holocaust Escape Tunnel…
RICHARD FREUND: Take the moment. Take the moment.
NARRATOR: …right now, on NOVA.
Just six miles outside of Lithuania's capital city is a forest park few have ever heard of. Here, more than 70,000 people, most of them Jews, were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. There are no gravestones. The bodies could be anywhere.
But that's not the only secret buried here. More than 75 years ago, 80 Jewish prisoners attempted to dig a tunnel and escape. Only the entrance was ever found, leaving questions unanswered. Was it ever finished? Where did it lead?
The answers seem lost to time, but can science reopen the investigation and help us understand not only this place but the Holocaust itself?
TIMOTHY SNYDER (Yale University): It's strange to say the Holocaust is actually much more terrible than we realize. And it happened way different than we think.
NARRATOR: For some, it is a history still unresolved.
GROUP: Shalom! Shalom!
NARRATOR: These people are the children of a unique group of Holocaust survivors. Their fathers survived the killings pits of Ponar forest.
HANA AMIR (Daughter of Ponar Survivor): My father always used to say they started it just behind…
HAIM MATZKIN (Son of Ponar Survivor): I never doubted the stories were the right stories.
NARRATOR: They heard stories of the tunnel.
NARRATOR: But with their fathers now gone and no firm evidence, only questions remain. What really happened?
HAIM MATZKIN: It would complete the entire picture if they would find the tunnel.
NARRATOR: Now, two archaeologists, Richard Freund, of the University of Hartford, and Jon Seligman, of the Israeli Antiquities Authority, believe they can answer these questions. But doing so will take them to a place few would expect, Lithuania, armed with new technology.
RICHARD FREUND: We now know we're going to follow that line back.
NARRATOR: Their mission is focused on a renowned city of 70,000 Jews, wiped out by the Nazis. The traces are almost invisible today, and with each passing decade, the story is further distorted by the lens of time.
ALASTAIR McCLYMONT: We're picking up two hotspots.
NARRATOR: To unlock the hidden history of this lost city will require not one investigation, but three. The search begins where Vilna ended: the brutal Nazi execution site known as Ponar. To this day, the location of multiple mass graves is still a mystery.
The second piece of the puzzle is Vilna's Great Synagogue, devastated by the Nazis, erased by the Soviets after the war, as if to warn the Jews, "Don't come back."
The last piece takes them back to the forest and Vilna's final chapter, to find proof that the escape tunnel really existed.
If successful, the team may uncover not just a lost civilization, but a turning point in the evolution of the Nazi killing machine.
Today, few clues would reveal it, but more than 75 years ago, it was here, in Lithuania, that the final solution, the systematic mass murder of 6,000,000 Jews, first began. Before the industrialized killing of the gas chambers in places like Auschwitz, the Nazis and their collaborators murdered Jews here, by the thousands, one bullet at a time.
RICHARD FREUND: They began killing 500, 600, 700 people per day.
This is ground zero for the "Final Solution."
NARRATOR: It is a painful history Lithuania is only now beginning to explore.
The pieces were in motion by 1940. Lithuania was trapped under a brutal occupation by Stalin's Soviet army. With the Germans approaching the border, anti-Semitism, already simmering, exploded.
ELLEN CASSEDY (Author, We Are Here): Right before the war, Nazi propaganda flooded the country of Lithuania, promoting the idea that Jews were communists and communists were Jews, and that if the Soviet Union was moving tanks into the country, it was because of the Jews. Now, in fact, most Jews were not communists, and most communists were not Jews, but that idea really took hold in the Lithuanian consciousness, and it was very, very damaging.
NARRATOR: Amidst the upheaval, the Soviet army began digging pits to store oil and gas, just outside the capital, in the Ponar forest.
Samuel Bak, now an internationally known artist, spent part of his childhood in the nearby village.
SAMUEL BAK (Vilna Survivor): I was there. I was in Ponar at this dacha of my aunt. I remember this noise of the digging, of their construction, that was supposed to be the base for containers of gas.
NARRATOR: But construction was never finished. In June 1941, the Germans invaded Lithuania and pushed the Soviets out.
ESIA BARAN FRIEDMAN (Vilna Survivor): In June, the Germans attacked us. They bombed us, and on the 24th, they walked into our city.
NARRATOR: The Nazis soon found Lithuanian collaborators eager to help in the killing of Jews. They also found something else, the freshly dug pits in the forest.
Just days after the invasion, they brought the first victims to the site, where they were shot.
TIMOTHY SNYDER: And this "Holocaust by bullets" as it's called, it's how it starts. It's how half of the victims die. But it's also the decisive moment when it's realized that something like this is possible.
RICHARD FREUND: This was the tipping point, because at this place they began systematically killing the Jews.
AVINOAM PATT: When historians try to understand, when did the Germans decide that the policy of the war would be total annihilation, total extermination of the Jews, they look at the summer of 1941, and they see a real turning point in this transition to mass murder.
NARRATOR: The killing was directed by Nazi troops known as "Einsatzgruppen."
JON SELIGMAN (Israeli Antiquities Authority): We know the people's names. Martin Weiss was the head of that unit. And he was the person directly responsible for the management of Ponar. Under his control, he had a, now a hundred and fifty Lithuanian volunteers from the Lithuanian Rifle Association, who went into another unit, which is called the Special Ones. They were the ones who were directly responsible for the actual killing and the, actual annihilation of the Jewish population on a day-to-day basis.
EFSTAFEEV: Ponary was death; that's what people said. There was no escaping.
NARRATOR: Today, trains still pass by Ponar forest.
RICHARD FREUND: You're hearing the trains going by. There were three ways that they used to bring the victims here. One was by truck, one was by walking, and one was by train. So when you hear these trains, you're listening to the sounds of the first moments of the Final Solution.
NARRATOR: Little evidence survives. The Jewish State Museum here is determined to preserve what still remains. Six burial pits have been identified so far. There may be more.
RICHARD FREUND: There are as many as 12 burial pits here.
NARRATOR: But how to find them?
German aerial photographs from the war provide one clue. More recently, a LIDAR study, commissioned by the Jewish State Museum, used laser imagery to strip away the foliage, confirming the six known pits.
A large indentation in the ground nearby reveals a possible seventh pit, but they can't simply start digging.
RICHARD FREUND: The biggest problem that you face is there are people buried here. How do you excavate to find out which way?
NARRATOR: Geophysicists Paul Bauman and ALASTAIR McClymont are using a tool that is relatively new to the field of archaeology, electrical resistivity tomography. The technology requires no digging at all. Instead, the team will essentially scan the ground in a narrow slice, generating a picture of the soil hidden below.
PAUL BAUMAN: We have all these gadgets that can see under the ground. Our goal is to identify the area of the pit, the depth of the pit; and then we can calculate a volume in the pit.
NARRATOR: Once the volume is known, the team can then estimate the number of bodies buried within. The first step is to hammer a line of metal spikes into the ground. The spikes are then linked together with cables.
A control unit, powered by a car battery, then fires hundreds of electrical pulses into the ground, and measures the way the soil conducts electricity. The resulting measurements are then assembled into a detailed "map," revealing what lies below.
To the trained eyes of the geophysicists it can reveal where the natural soil ends and any disturbance, like a mass grave, begins.
PAUL BAUMAN: It is a subtle signature. However, we're fortunate that in this environment that there's homogenous sand, where everything looks the same, so, even a subtle signature stands out very clearly.
NARRATOR: The entire process takes hours, as the machine sends electricity into the ground, slowly mapping the soil. It takes multiple passes…
PAUL BAUMAN: How many meters do you think it could be off? Five to ten, ten to twenty?
NARRATOR: …before they finally start to see results.
PAUL BAUMAN: Oh, this is better. So, that's good. It looks like we have our pit.
NARRATOR: The rest of the team is summoned, and Freund briefs the student volunteers.
RICHARD FREUND: It's about 24 meters large, four meters deep. So, it's a burial pit. If somebody asks you, what is going on here, you can say there are about 5,- to 7,000 people buried in this unknown pit.
NARRATOR: Thousands of people buried in this forest, murdered by the Nazis. But who were they? Today, this city goes by its Lithuanian name, Vilnius. But for centuries, it also had another name, one rarely heard now: Vilna, its name in both Hebrew and Yiddish, the everyday language of European Jews. They called it the "Jerusalem of the North."
DAVID FISHMAN (Jewish Theological Seminary): That's an unusual title. There are very few communities in Jewish history that got the title "the Jerusalem of…"
AVINOAM PATT: Vilna was one of the most important cities in Jewish history, certainly one of the capitals of European Jewish civilization.
NARRATOR: Prior to World War II, Jews made up a large part of the city.
DAVID FISHMAN: Most people think of New York as a very, very Jewish city. Well, that's 15 percent; Vilna, at its peak, was 40 percent Jewish.
AVINOAM PATT: It was a center of Jewish learning, of Jewish culture, of Jewish politics.
NARRATOR: Six Jewish newspapers, museums, the largest Jewish library in the world…
Esia Friedman was born in Vilna, before the war.
ESIA BARAN FRIEDMAN: For me, Vilna was the most beautiful place in the world. Everything was gorgeous. Any little synagogue that you went in was beautiful.
SAMUEL BAK: There was all this learning, and there was a very specific cultural character of the Jews of Vilna. That was the result of the studies and the attitudes of the very famous rabbi, who is called the Gaon of Vilna.
NARRATOR: The Gaon's legacy of scholarship, both religious and secular, came to permeate all of Vilna, but today, Vilna's most sacred places have vanished. This patch of soil was once the most important Jewish landmark in the entire city. For centuries, this was the site of the Great Synagogue of Vilna.
Destroyed by the Nazis, the ruins were leveled by the Soviets, who sealed them away by building a school on top.
Only fragments survive in museums today. Some of those fragments were recovered in 2011, when Lithuanian archaeologists dug three excavation pits in the grass next to the modern school.
ZENONAS BAUBONIS (Lithuanian Institute of History): The goal was to pinpoint more precisely the location of the Great Synagogue, itself, and the main architectural features of the synagogue.
NARRATOR: The excavations uncovered pieces of the main worship area.
RICHARD FREUND: What's amazing is that it was right here, where the ark sat. They found the column base and the steps leading up to the main "bimah," where the Torah was read.
NARRATOR: Today, much of the worship area lies buried under the school, but the complex was far larger.
JON SELIGMAN: We've got to look at this whole complex as a community center. You would've been coming in from the street, walking down a Jewish street, coming in the main courtyard.
NARRATOR: Dating back to the 16th century, the Great Synagogue was not the only synagogue in the city, in fact, there were more than a hundred. Then, as now, Judaism was diverse, ranging from ultra-orthodox to secular, but the Great Synagogue, more than any other, was integral to the identity of Vilna.
RICHARD FREUND: It was unmatched. There was nothing like it.
NARRATOR: The complex housed the world-famous library, kosher meat butchers and a communal well. It also held another critical structure: the mikveh, the ritual bath required for observant Jews.
JON SELIGMAN: It potentially could be one of the oldest parts of the structure, so that's a really important aspect of the whole complex.
NARRATOR: Based on historical diagrams, Jon Seligman suspects the mikveh is under the playground. For the archaeological team, it is an appealing target.
RICHARD FREUND: Mikvehs are great places to excavate, because people lose all their personal items when they're going into the bath.
NARRATOR: Recovering this lost world is a personal mission for many on the team: Lithuanian archaeologists, Israeli volunteers, American students.
ALEX KLEINSCHMIDT (University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire): For me, personally, my goal is to be able to contribute to mankind and to be able to say that I did something.
NARRATOR: For lead archaeologist Jon Seligman, the investigation is even more significant: his family once lived here.
JON SELIGMAN: So this, for them, would have been the place they would have looked up to as the most important place in their own community.
NARRATOR: Most of them were murdered in the killing pits of Ponar.
JON SELIGMAN: Looking over my shoulder is my grandfather, maybe, thinking, "Good on you." For me, that is something of great meaning.
NARRATOR: With no clues visible from the surface, the search for the mikveh begins with a technology known as ground-penetrating radar.
Harry Jol is the team's G.P.R. expert.
HARRY JOL (University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire): Ground-penetrating radar, known as G.P.R., uses F.M. radio waves, just like we're listening to the in the car, here. And as those waves are coming through the air, we're actually putting them into the ground. And as they're going into the ground, they're reflecting off of surfaces, and that's what we're seeing in the radar.
NARRATOR: By measuring how quickly the signals are reflected back to the unit, G.P.R. can reveal features in the ground that don't look natural.
HARRY JOL: Particularly in archaeology, you're looking for those right corners. Nothing in nature builds anything with a right corner. If we can figure out a feature with a right corner, we can say that's a building; that's human.
NARRATOR: With scanning complete, the data is sent to California for processing, while the team sleeps.
By morning, the results are ready.
HARRY JOL: The data just came back. What we're seeing here, in these slices, is some straight lines, and they're coming in at right angles. The only thing these could be is potential walls.
NARRATOR: Jol hands the data over to cartographer Phil Reeder.
PHILIP REEDER (Duquesne University): We look for all the existing maps and diagrams, and then what we're able to do is we're able to overlay them on top of each other, get everything in the same scale, and then we can add our data to that.
NARRATOR: When the G.P.R. data is matched against the floor plan of the complex from before the war, the team knows exactly where to start.
The first loads of soil go into the sifters, and, almost immediately, artifacts appear…
RICHARD FREUND: And now we have silverware. I don't think we're in a kitchen, although there's a possibility that somebody was actually cooking here. There's coals, there's burned wood.
NARRATOR: …coins, pottery, tiles from the large heating stoves that once stood here.
JON SELIGMAN: You'd have a stove which would be stoked from below and be heating up the water. And the room itself, the room would have to be warm as well.
Lithuania…today it's a nice sunny day, but in the winter here, it's miserable.
It's fantastic, and it's beautifully decorated.
NARRATOR: The tiles from the heater suggest they may be close to the mikveh, close to discovering a key part of the Great Synagogue that was burned and bombed by the Germans during the war.
In 1941, the 70,000 Jews of Vilna found themselves trapped; there was no escaping the Nazis.
MARKAS ZINGERIS (Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum): And then, of course, a sudden, sudden occupation of the Nazi Germany. So, there was no much time to run away from Lithuania.
VADIM ALTSKAN (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum): There were a few trains which left Vilnius, but many travelled on foot, and they couldn't even cross old Soviet-Lithuanian borders; they had no proper documents.
ESIA BARAN FRIEDMAN: It was like a nightmare. No doctors, no going to school, no walking on the sidewalks. No food.
The Germans immediately told us that we had to be marked, so we put on the yellow Star of David.
NARRATOR: Soon the door-to-door searches began, and people started disappearing.
VADIM ALTSKAN: This is a time…it's late June, early July, 1941…when Vilnius is a very dangerous place for Jews. They snatch from streets, they taking by so-called "Hapuns." This is Yiddish word for people who are catching.
NARRATOR: Ten weeks after the invasion, the remaining Jews were forced into one of two ghettos, including young Samuel Bak.
SAMUEL BAK: One day the Lithuania police came and said, "Take with you what you can carry, and go into the street."
RACHEL SHARON (Vilna Survivor): In one apartment, like 50 peoples here. One by the other, one by the other.
ESIA BARAN FRIEDMAN: One Saturday morning, my mama heard screaming. She opened the, the door. And there was an elderly man from my street being shoved. These barbarians were pushing an old man. And then they went after my friend. Nahama was her name. She had a sister and a baby and parents, and the little girl was crying, so they bayonetted her and threw her out.
NARRATOR: Children were regularly targeted.
RACHEL SHARON: My sister was two years younger than I. Her name was Shaindele. In Hebrew it mean Shaindel in English it means "beauty." She was a real a beauty.
But in that morning, when I kiss her, like, I said to her, "I will no, never see you again." And I didn't see her again. It was my last time that I saw her, like an angel.
ESIA BARAN FRIEDMAN: My mother was brave. I don't understand it. She went to work. But she would hide me in an attic, and she would go to work. I was hungry. And she would always tell me, "Not a word. You have to stay quietly." And she was hiding me out, and this is how I lived, for what I thought was a long, long time.
NARRATOR: Also hiding inside the ghetto was a group of Jewish rebels, determined to fight back, known as the F.P.O., or simply, the partisans. Their leader was a man named Abba Kovner.
AVINOAM PATT: It's no coincidence that it's in Lithuania, it's in Vilna, that we first see somebody like Kovner, who says, "This is not isolated. This is something that is going to happen to every Jew in Europe."
NARRATOR: The partisans began to stockpile weapons, hoping to hold on until the Soviets returned to drive the Nazis out.
In 1943, the F.P.O. snuck out of the ghetto through the sewers. They began launching attacks on Nazi targets in the forests around the city, including Ponar.
By this time, the Nazi execution site here had been active for two years. About 70,000 Jews had been murdered, along with thousands of suspected communists, and other people the Nazis deemed enemies. The burial pits were nearly full.
It was damning evidence, and the Russians were coming.
RICHARD FREUND: By December 1943, the Nazis knew that the Russians were on the border, ready to take back Lithuania. They had committed, by that time, nearly a hundred thousand atrocities, meaning the people had been shot and they were kept in these burial pits, but they now needed the evidence to disappear into ash.
NARRATOR: Only a few thousand Jews were left in prisons and small labor camps in the area. The Nazis gathered 80 of the healthiest and brought them to Ponar, not to be shot but to work.
Much later, their children learned the story of their ordeal.
HANA AMIR: He was the youngest one, my father. There were 80 people that worked. There were four women that were in the kitchen.
HAIM MATZKIN: During the first months, they were asked to, to cut down trees. They were not told what the trees were to be used for. Towards the end of 1943, somewhere in December, the beginning of '44, they were told what the purpose of those logs were.
ABE GOL: The German commandant of Ponar said, "The reason that we brought you here is because all these Lithuanians committed this horrific crimes against the Jews, and we want you to clean that up."
HAIM MATZKIN: Their job would be to dig them out and burn them.
NARRATOR: Dig out the thousands of bodies and burn them.
ABE GOL: The diggers, the burners, everybody had, had their own task. The younger people were charged with pulling out the gold teeth.
HAIM MATZKIN: He said the corpses were already decomposed, but he recognized some of them by their clothes. I think he found his two children. I know for sure that he found his wife and other family members.
They used to burn, he said, about 200 corpses on each layer of, of wood, of logs. They used to put like 10 layers, so it was about 2,000 corpses, plus or minus, a day.
HANA AMIR: He said that in one big hole they counted between 22,- to 25,000 bodies. My father said, "You can try to imagine what…you, you can't imagine."
NARRATOR: The stacks of bodies were so large, ramps were needed to build the topmost layers.
RICHARD FREUND: This is the Burning Brigade's bridge that they used. They'd be able to grab bodies, and they'd be able to throw them onto pyres.
HAIM MATZKIN: As a child, I remember him waking up and, and shouting in Lithuanian, "Pajarna," which is fire or something like this, burning or fire. He was really haunted by those pictures.
JON SELIGMAN (Translating for SABINA DOMBA, Daughter of Ponar Survivor): She says that, in fact, her father didn't tell her very much. He actually, he was silent most of the time. And he would sit silently and, and chain smoke.
HANA AMIR: My father, afterwards, kept on washing hands, all the time.
RICHARD FREUND: And in December, January, they all realized, those 80 Jews—76 men, four women—that when they're finished, they would be the last victims. So, they hatched a plan.
HANA AMIR: He said that, "All we thought is that someone will survive and tell the world what's going on, what happened here."
RICHARD FREUND: And they started digging an escape tunnel, for 76 days.
ABE GOL: There were two of them at the time; one would dig and another one would ferry the dirt back into the bunker.
JON SELIGMAN: (Translating for SABINA DOMBA, Daughter of Ponar Survivor): She said the candle they were using for lighting would go out, wasn't enough oxygen to keep the candle going. So, her father set up an, an electrical system with a, with a lightbulb inside.
EFSTAFEEV: (Translation) The tunnel, despite being small, still has to be correctly engineered. One had, one had to understand the distribution of pressure and so on. My grandfather had degree in engineering; could be useful in the construction.
NARRATOR: These stories testify to the existence of a tunnel, but so many years later, can it be found?
PAUL BAUMAN: We do a lot of tunnel detection, and it's really difficult, and especially a tunnel like that, where it's just, it's hand dug, it's small. There's nothing in it. There's no metal supports. It's surrounded by sand, very improbable.
NARRATOR: But can new technology help?
PAUL BAUMAN: And so, when I come to these projects, I don't expect everything to work and us to find everything we're looking for. I just want to have some success.
NARRATOR: The team has only one clue to go on: a Lithuanian excavation in 2004 that identified the entrance.
RICHARD FREUND: The entrance to the tunnel was found in the original excavations they did, but they couldn't find the continuation of the tunnel, that was the key.
NARRATOR: The first thing the geophysics team needs to figure out is the direction the tunnel would take, if ever completed.
Architect Ken Bensimon spent his career designing prisons.
KEN BENSIMON (KMB Architects): Our design was to prevent escapes and to prevent the design of tunnels.
NARRATOR: Ruling out where the Lithuanians already excavated, and knowing the diggers would not have backtracked across the pit, Bensimon has flagged an area for examination. And on their very first run, the team gets a surprise.
RICHARD FREUND: Wow.
KEN BENSIMON: It's exactly there.
NARRATOR: One hot spot stands out. It looks like the cross-section of a collapsed tunnel, about 130 feet away from the previously discovered entrance, back in the pit. Most of the soil, colored blue, is too dry and sandy to conduct electricity very well. But the soil in the collapsed tunnel is looser, and holds more moisture, conducting more electricity and generating the signal they see on their screens.
PAUL BAUMAN: It rains here a lot. Here you even have a ditch leading into it, where it's collapsed. And even if it's collapsed, it's not going to be as compact as the original sand that was laid down.
NARRATOR: It's not definitive though. They need to verify this signal is a segment of a tunnel. So, they decide to scan the entrance found in 2004 and check if the images match.
ALASTAIR MCCLYMONT: This is the area where the tunnel began. The entrance is about four feet below where I am standing right now.
NARRATOR: Though the pit is empty today, a small hut stood here, later sketched by one of the survivors.
ABE GOL: They were told to build their own living quarters, basically said that the German commandant of Ponar said, "This is where you will live."
NARRATOR: Climbing out of the pit to escape was impossible.
HAIM MATZKIN: The Germans put a lot of mines. So, they could not really try and escape. And he always described that, at the end of the day, they were brought down, with a ladder, to the bottom of the pit. The ladder was taken out, was taken away, so there was no way they could climb it up.
NARRATOR: Their only chance at freedom was to dig through the floor.
HAIM MATZKIN: And they had like a cupboard and the cupboard used to cover the entrance to the tunnel.
NARRATOR: This is what the geophysics team will scan for.
When they process their data, the tunnel entrance inside the pit shows up clearly, in exactly the same spot where the Lithuanian team found it in 2004.
ALASTAIR MCCLYMONT: We have a slightly more conductive anomaly.
NARRATOR: Equally important, the signal matches the first reading they got 130 feet away—roughly the length of the tunnel, according to the survivors' stories.
RICHARD FREUND: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Now we know exactly what we're looking for.
NARRATOR: It seems they have the beginning and the end of the tunnel, but can they find the rest of it?
PAUL BAUMAN: Lots and lots of naysayers will say exactly that. "Any two points make a line, show me a third point." So, yeah I think we need a third point, to convince everybody.
NARRATOR: Months before the tunnel was begun, in September 1943, the Germans begin killing the last ghetto residents, a process known as "liquidation."
ESIA BARAN FRIEDMAN: So, my mother, she always had another plan of what would happen. And she pushed me over, like, a wall or a hall or wherever.
But you know what she said to me before, in Yiddish? (Speaks in Yiddish) which means, "My child, never forget that you're Jewish." And she pushed me out.
NARRATOR: Sam Bak was taken with his father to a work camp, but for children, it was no safer than the ghetto.
SAMUEL BAK: So, about 200 kids that were in the camp were killed, and my father brought me out to the gate of the camp carrying me in a sack. Therefore, the last memory of my father is the feeling to be on his shoulder, kind of a physical feeling of his presence. I don't even know if the voice of somebody shouting, "Run, run!" when he liberated me from the sack, I don't even know if it was his voice or someone else's voice. He was killed a few days before the Russians arrived.
NARRATOR: In 1944, the Soviets drive out the Germans, annexing the country. They would rule for nearly 50 years.
In the Great Synagogue yard, the archeology team finds what appears to be a remnant of the Soviet era…
MANTAS DAUBARAS (Lithuanian Institute of History): Do you know what it is?
RESEARCHER: Yeah… from gun.
MANTAS DAUBARAS: It was obviously shot, because of those dots over there. I do believe it's Russian.
NARRATOR: …a Russian-made bullet, from the post-Nazi era, when the few remaining Jews, alongside other minorities, had to endure the Soviets' attempt to stamp out their religion and culture.
FAINA KUKLIANSKY (Jewish Community of Lithuania): It was not so easy in the Soviet time, and we really, we could not go to synagogue. But you know, the people were so anxious that they wanted to have their culture so much.
NARRATOR: Fearing their precious artifacts would be destroyed by the Soviets, Jewish leaders sent them away. Today, one precious treasure has returned.
JUDAH PASSOW (Photographer): In 1960, my father came to Vilnius, where he met the leaders of what was left of the Jewish community. And at this meeting, they produced this scroll, and they pleaded with him to take it out to the West for safekeeping.
JON SELIGMAN: That's extraordinary. These are valuable possessions of every community. These really are the most important possessions of every Jewish community…were the Torah scrolls.
NARRATOR: The Torah will be authenticated, while the team returns to work. They only have two days left on their permit to find and document the mikveh, the ritual bath, but they've uncovered an important clue.
JON SELIGMAN: We have an arch. You see the bricks over here?
RICHARD FREUND: What kind of depth do we have right now?
RESEARCHER: approximately 1.5 meters.
NARRATOR: With the clock ticking, the team digs in shifts, and then, a lucky break, literally.
JON SELIGMAN: Oh, my goodness.
NARRATOR: They clear away a small hole.
RICHARD FREUND: If we can get in, underneath, we may have won the lottery.
JON SELIGMAN: Have you hit the floor?
MANTAS DAUBARAS: Right now, I did.
JON SELIGMAN: How much is that?
MANTAS DAUBARAS: Three-sixty, three-sixty. That's deep.
JON SELIGMAN: It's about ten and a half feet.
NARRATOR: The hole is just large enough to fit a GoPro® camera.
RESEARCHER: I see brickwork, like a wall or something. I think that's pretty clear, that's a heater. That's a water heater.
JON SELIGMAN: We're standing in the corner of the vault, continues more or less in line with where Jorgas is standing, over there. And round about three or four meters in that direction, and somewhere round about close to the back wall, we have a heater, metal heater, which is heating up water.
NARRATOR: A water heater, likely for the bathhouse and mikveh.
JON SELIGMAN: That's the fun of archaeology, you've got no idea what you're going to find down there.
MANTAS DAUBARAS: It's the first time I've seen something like that.
JON SELIGMAN: It's been a good day.
NARRATOR: A good day, indeed; they've found an intact piece of the Great Synagogue complex.
JON SELIGMAN: It's absolutely successful. We will find more, I hope, in the future. And that's the way archeology works, you find a bit now, and you come back next year and you find the rest.
NARRATOR: At Ponar forest, where the Nazis murdered about 70,000 people, the geophysics team is within striking distance of finding the escape tunnel. They found two cross-sections, but they need more evidence to prove that it was actually completed and used.
A sudden rainstorm might actually help.
PAUL BAUMAN: It's a lot easier to get current into wet sand than dry sand, so the rain actually works in our favor.
NARRATOR: If they find it, they will have tangible proof for what have been only stories, handed down from the survivors to their children.
RICHARD FREUND: Their accounts are riveting, because they give us detail.
And on the last night of Passover, April 15th, between 9:00 and 10:00, they knew that there was great danger, but they were going to try to get through the forest without making too much noise.
HANA AMIR: The guard heard the steps, and that's when they start shooting.
ABE GOL: The guards started firing indiscriminately. They didn't see anybody, didn't know who they were firing at. My father was able to climb out of there and start running.
NARRATOR: Of the 80 prisoners, only 11 escaped and made it through the war.
RICHARD FREUND: It is one of the most horrific escapes that we have in the Holocaust, but it is also a great testament to the courage of survival.
NARRATOR: Once in the forest, they were found by Abba Kovner and the partisans. Some joined the fight against the Nazis.
HANA AMIR: My father said, "We wanted to fight, we wanted revenge."
NARRATOR: Years later, Abe Gol's father ended up in America; the engineer, Yuri Farber, returned to his birthplace, in Russia; Hana's father, Motke Zaidel, settled in Israel; as did Haim's father and the rest of the survivors.
For decades, their words were the only evidence for the tunnel. Now modern technology is about to prove their story true, because there, on the screen, appears the third piece of their tunnel.
RESEARCHER: This is astounding, as good as we possibly could have hoped for.
RICHARD FREUND: We've found a major part of the tunnel. And there's something extremely, personally, moving about knowing what these people must have gone through in those 76 days.
NARRATOR: Two last scans provide the final confirmation.
ALASTAIR MCCLYMONT: So, the tunnel is many feet below where I am standing right now, about the same level under this hill, out in this direction. Our technology indicates it's approximately under this alignment, under this hill, and continued for about 90 to 100 feet. The exit is somewhere beyond this area, here.
NARRATOR: The news of the discovery soon makes international headlines, reaching the survivor's children in Israel, who are eager to see the proof of their fathers' stories.
RICHARD FREUND: See all the blue? That's sand. And we have five slices that we did of the tunnel.
HANA AMIR: Where is the entrance to the tunnel?
RICHARD FREUND: The tunnel is at the corner, here.
HANA AMIR: It's just like my father used to do, with the hands. We dug just like this.
INTERVIEWER: …behind the kitchen?
HANA AMIR: That's right.
JON SELIGMAN: This is a very special opportunity to look at what had happened at that place.
HAIM MATZKIN: It was something that you really felt was unreal. That they mystified it, and then, everything is here.
HANA AMIR: The moment I saw it, I was shocked.
HAIM MATZKIN: This actually closes the full circle for me, absolutely.
NARRATOR: Modern technology has brought them the closure they thought they would never have, but the civilization known as Vilna is gone. More than 95 percent of the Jewish community of Vilnius was destroyed, and thousands of other lives were taken. A vital culture, hundreds of years old, embodied by the Great Synagogue at its center, is extinguished.
The Torah scroll, back from safekeeping, has been authenticated. It is one of the last surviving pieces of Vilna, now kept in one of the city's only active synagogues.
As time passes, memories of Vilna and its people will fade and die out. 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.
ON SCREEN: These are the men who escaped through the tunnel:
The rest of the prisoners were killed.
This film is dedicated to the memory of them all.
Bundesfilmarchiv/Transit Film GmbH
Archives of YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York
Historic Films Archive
Holocaust Education and Archive Research Team
Library of Congress
National Archives and Records Administration
National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University
Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive, United States Holocaust
The Ghetto Fighters' House Museum, Israel/ The Photo Archive
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum
Archaeology Quest: Vilna
Dr. David Ariel
The Grae Family Vilna Excavations Project at the University of Hartford
The Goldrich Foundation, Bayer School of Science, Duquesne University
Israel Antiquities Authority
Jewish Community of Lithuania
Professor Michael Berenbaum
Paul Bauman Geophysics Ltd.
Targum Shlishi Foundation
The Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies and the College of Arts and Sciences,
University of Hartford
US Embassy, Vilnius
US Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad
The Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum
A NOVA production by Lone Wolf Media for WGBH Boston.
© 2017 WGBH Educational Foundation
All rights reserved
This program was produced by WGBH, which is solely responsible for its content.
Original funding for this program was provided by Cancer Treatment Centers of America, 23andMe, The David H. Koch Fund for Science, The Steve Perry Foundation, Marjie and Robert Kargman and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
- Image credit: (train passing stop sign)
- © Joey Hayes/Vantage/Design Pics Inc/Alamy Stock Photo
- Vadim Altskan
- U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
- Hana Amir
- Daughter of Ponar Survivor
- Samuel Bak
- Vilna Survivor
- Esia Baran Friedman
- Vilna Survivor
- Zenonas Baubonis
- Lithuanian Institute of History
- Paul Bauman
- Ken Bensimon
- KMB Architects
- Ellen Cassedy
- Author, "We Are Here"
- Mantas Daubaras
- Lithuanian Institute of History
- Sabina Domba
- Daughter of Ponar Survivor
- Nikita Farber
- Grandson of Ponar Survivor
- David Fishman
- Jewish Theological Seminary
- Richard Freund
- University of Hartford
- Abe Gol
- Son of Ponar Survivor
- Harry Jol
- University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire
- Alex Kleinschmidt
- University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire
- Faina Kukliansky
- Jewish Community of Lithuania
- Haim Matzkin
- Son of Ponar Survivor
- Alastair McClymont
- Judah Passow
- Avinoam Patt
- University of Hartford
- Philip Reeder
- Duquesne University
- Jon Seligman
- Israeli Antiquities Authority
- Rachel Sharon
- Vilna Survivor
- Timothy Snyder
- Yale University
- Markas Zingeris
- Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum
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