“Holocaust Escape Tunnel” NOVA Documentary
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“Holocaust Escape Tunnel”

NOVA Documentary

  • Ponary, Poland: Jews digging a trench in which they were later buried, after being shot.
    Ponary, Poland: Jews digging a trench in which they were later buried, after being shot.

    Courtesy of Yad Vashem

  • The infamous Burning Pit, used by the Nazi’s to burn the remains of their Jewish victims in order to conceal all evidence.
    The infamous Burning Pit, used by the Nazi’s to burn the remains of their Jewish victims in order to conceal all evidence.

    Courtesy of WGBH

  • Ponary, Poland: The unfinished fuel tank site, which was used as an execution site for Jews from the Vilna region.
    Ponary, Poland: The unfinished fuel tank site, which was used as an execution site for Jews from the Vilna region.

    Courtesy of Yad Vashem

  • Professor Richard Freund discusses data with Professor Harry Jol while overlooking the Nazi burning pit.
    Professor Richard Freund discusses data with Professor Harry Jol while overlooking the Nazi burning pit.

    Courtesy of WGBH

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, 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.

Led by the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies' very own Richard Freund, PhD, professor of Jewish History, and Jon Seligman, PhD, 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. 

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 (Duquesne University,) as well as students and staff.