The Great Escape
A new NOVA documentary follows an archaeologist and his team as they unearth a tunnel dug by Jewish prisoners in the Holocaust
Richard Freund, a field archaeologist with 15 television documentaries to his credit, has concentrated on sites associated with the beginnings of Judaism and Christianity — until now.
His latest project, filmed by the PBS series NOVA, goes back to the much more recent time of the Holocaust and explores the locale where a small group of courageous and hopeful Lithuanian Jews outsmarted the Nazis.
In June 1941, 10 days after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union and before gas chambers were found to be a quicker way of killing, Nazis brought the first groups of Jews from Vilna, once a thriving epicenter of Jewish learning and culture, to the nearby Ponar Forest. There, with the help of a Lithuanian rifle unit, they systematically shot to death 100,000 people, mostly Jews, who were buried along mass graves.
In 1944, as the Soviets moved toward retaking Lithuania, the Germans ordered a so-called “Burning Brigade” of 80 Jewish prisoners — 76 men and 4 women — to exhume and incinerate the corpses to hide evidence of the Nazi’s mass murders.
What happened next, and the discovery of it, is the subject of NOVA: Holocaust Escape Tunnel, which airs April 19. Using their bare hands, spoons and improvised tools over 76 nights, the shackled team of prisoners dug an escape tunnel that started with a single hole, in an attempt to evade the fate of the previous 100,000 and to tell the story of the Jews of Vilna.
Finally, on April 15, 1944, the last night of Passover, the shackled prisoners attempted an escape through the narrow, 100-foot-long tunnel, right below the feet of their Nazi captors. Twelve made it out, and 11 survived the war.
The beginnings of Freund’s Vilna project started three years ago, when the archaeologist was approached by Jon Seligman of the Antiquities Authority of Israel. The idea was to see if they could find the Great Synagogue of Vilna, a complex dating back to the 16th century. Seligman’s parents, grandparents and great- grandparents had all lived in Vilna.
The two, who went to Vilna in 2015 and mapped the subsurface around the site, later heard the story of the cave survivors and located the place after only a few days in the field as the filming crew documented their exploration in 2016.
“I knew NOVA liked to have good science projects and made a contact,” recalls Freund, director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford.
After NOVA agreed, Freund arranged for an entire team of geophysicists and offered the use of their equipment to archaeological groups in Lithuania. The Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, which administers the Ponar Burial Pits, asked to use the equipment to find additional pits so people would not develop any buildings on those sites.
When museum representatives told the stories about the escape tunnel, the team used their equipment and located it after only a few days in the field during 2016.
NOVA: Holocaust Escape Tunnel uses sophisticated technology to show underground spaces in what currently appears as a peaceful forest. The documentary moves on to interview Israeli and American descendants of the 11 survivors.
The program also shows excavation of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, which had been destroyed by the Germans and leveled by the Soviets, leading to information about the tunnel. In a larger context, the NOVA episode interviews survivors from the area near Ponar and includes remembrances of artist Samuel Bak, who lived in Vilna.
“I’ve been working in the field for 35 years, and most of the discoveries have been made by a person in the middle of nowhere and sometimes without even a camera,” says Freund. “In this case, having filmmakers there at the moment when the tunnel was discovered and having them chronicle this whole discovery and synagogue excavation turned into an amazing experience.”
Freund, who has worked on a site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered and in caves where the Bar Kokhba rebels were housed, feels a close relationship with the Lithuanian findings he narrates on camera. The broadcast will be shown just before Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), which will be observed from sundown to sundown April 23-24.
“My great-grandfather came from Vilna to the United States in 1903,” he explains about the area now known as Vilnius. “There was not a moment when I was in the forest at Ponar that I didn’t think I would have been one of those people but for the grace of God.”
Rather than excavate and disturb the remains, the archaeological team used non-invasive identification methods and subsurface geophysical mapping technology, including Electrical Resistivity Tomography, Ground Penetrating Radar, Lidar remote sensing equipment and advanced software analysis. The devices, which take the place of historical excavation approaches, protect the sanctity of sensitive sites.
“The new frontier for the study of the Holocaust may be science,” says Freund, a 25-year pioneer in using advanced technology. “It may be able to make more concrete the authenticity of all the testimonies of people.
“This technology tells everything that’s below the surface and what kinds of materials are below the surface. It’s used by the gas and oil industries because they want to know about the gas and oil and what materials are in between.
“In 2008, we worked at the Sobibor Death Camp in Poland. It was in the middle of a forest, and we were able to map the subsurface and tell the Polish archaeologists where there are no bodies but there are installations, like gas chambers, that they can excavate.”
Because Freund has not been allowed to take any money from film companies or the Lithuanian government, he has had to get funding from foundations and individual donors.
“The United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad [a governmental unit] has given a substantial amount of money to fund our work, and the U.S. embassy in Lithuania gave us some funding,” says Freund, who has attended conferences at Wayne State and Michigan State universities and has been awarded a study grant from the University of Michigan.
Freund will continue Lithuanian exploration this summer. He will be working on a site where a Nazi major, Karl Plagge, saved 1,250 Jews, and he will be going to Kovno to work around three forts where more than 70,000 Jews were murdered.
In a distant project, there will be work in Israel at the Church of the Annunciation at Nazareth.
“To be able to show the children and grandchildren of the Ponar survivors that tunnel and how the escape happened has been one of the great experiences of my life,” Freund says.
“My major job is to bring Jewish and non-Jewish students into the field to do this work. I feel this is the only way these students will appreciate the depth of what happened in the Holocaust.”
Suzanne Chessler Contributing Writer
NOVA: Holocaust Escape Tunnel can be seen at 9 p.m. Wednesday, April 19, on WTVS-Detroit Public TV. Dptv.org.