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‘Never forget’: New ‘Nova’ episode highlights secret Jewish escape

(RNS) It was called 'The Jewish Alcatraz,' but on the last night of Passover in 1944, 80 prisoners dug themselves out.

The infamous Burning Pit, the location in the Ponary Forest near Vilnius, Lithuania, used by the Nazi’s to burn the remains of their Jewish victims in order to rid themselves of all evidence.  Photo courtesy of Ezra Wolfinger for WGBH

(RNS) Esia Baran Friedman‘s mother hid her from the Nazis in an attic.

One night, she could hide her 10-year-old daughter no more. She hugged her tight, lifted her to the window of their cramped flat in the ghetto of Vilnius, Lithuania, and pushed her out.

Her parting words to her daughter were her last — she did not survive the Holocaust — and they are words Friedman, who now lives in Connecticut, remembers across 70-plus years:

“Never forget, my child, that you are Jewish.”

Jews dig a trench in which they were later buried, after being shot, in Ponary Forest near Vilnius, Lithuania. Photo courtesy of Yad Vashem

Friedman tells her tale in “Holocaust Escape Tunnel,” a new episode of the science series “Nova” that will air on most PBS stations April 19. It follows the work of an American archaeologist hunting for evidence of Jewish survival in and around Vilnius — where 95 percent of the Jewish population was murdered by the Nazis.

“People think archaeology is about walls or coins or glass, but archaeology is about people,” said Richard Freund, an archaeologist and professor of Jewish history at University of Hartford who leads the digs featured in the show. “What you want is to understand the people behind these artifacts.”

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Freund traveled with a team of archaeologists from the U.S., Israel and Lithuania last summer. At two separate digs, they sought remnants of Vilnius’ Great Synagogue, a 16th-century complex that covered the area of two football fields that was sacked by the Nazis and leveled by the Russians, and a hand-dug tunnel, described only in oral histories, that Jews dug beneath a nearby forest to escape Nazi death squads.

Professor Richard Freund of the University of Hartford discusses data with Professor Harry Jol while overlooking a Nazi burning pit in the Ponary Forest near Vilnius, Lithuania, on June 21, 2016. Photo courtesy of Ezra Wolfinger for WGBH

It is no secret that Freund and his team found the tunnel, as the discovery made global headlines last June. But less well-known, and documented by “Nova,” was their almost simultaneous discovery of the Great Synagogue’s mikvah — a ritual bath — beneath the yard of a Soviet-era school.

“Finding the mikvah is a way of saying we’ll find the rest of this synagogue and we will build it again,” said Paula Apsell, Nova’s senior executive producer and co-director of the segment. “You can put a school on top of it but you can’t bury it forever.”

Shmuel Rabinovitch kisses his older brothers, Amos and Binyamin, farewell as they leave for Palestine from the Vilna train station in 1940. Photo courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Shmuel Elhanan

The discovery of the mikvah is an upbeat counterpoint to the sad history of Vilnius.

When the Nazis invaded in June 1941, they turned what was once called “The Jerusalem of the North” for its 120 synagogues, famously learned rabbis and legendary library into a locked ghetto of 40,000 starving people.

Friedman was among them. Only a few hundred Jews survived the Vilnius ghetto.

Most of the town’s residents were systematically shipped to the Ponary Forest, where they were shot and buried in mass graves. Approximately 100,000 Jews from Vilnius and surrounding areas died in what has come to be called the Ponary Forest massacre. It was a precursor to the “Final Solution,” Hitler’s effort to eradicate Jews across Europe.

In the forest, Freund and his team looked for evidence of a tunnel supposedly dug by some of the 80 Jewish prisoners held there at night and forced to erase evidence of the nearby mass burial pits by day. By 1944, the Nazis expected the Russians to invade and wanted to cover evidence of the war crimes.

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The children of these prisoners grew up hearing stories from their fathers about using spoons to dig a passage from the pit in which they were held to the forest beyond.

Reenactment of a prisoner at Ponary digging the escape tunnel. Photo courtesy of WGBH

The story goes that on April 14, 1944 — the last night of Passover — Jewish prisoners disappeared through the tunnel. A guard heard them and alerted others. Of the 80 who attempted the escape, only 11 survived.

Freund and his team used ground-penetrating radar and electrical resistivity tomography to search for the tunnel. They found it almost immediately.

Apsell, who was on site for the discovery, called it “the perfect coming together of science and religion.” She said the importance of such evidence is that it refutes those who would deny the Holocaust.

“The evidence that is something you can point to and say there was a tunnel there and it is true and no matter what anyone does they cannot deny that,” she said.

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Freund will return to the Ponary Forest again this summer, with a different crew. He is used to digging in ancient sites, where he has no personal connection to the long-ago inhabitants. But Vilnius — where his great-grandfather, a Jew, came from — is more personal.

“I never met my great-grandfather,” he said. “But I have a new appreciation for what it took for him to come from Vilnius to the U.S. and start a new life here. There was not a moment when I was in the forest that I didn’t say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.'”

The unfinished fuel tank site near in the Ponary Forest near Vilnius, Lithuania, which was used as an execution and burn site for Jews from the Vilna region. Photo courtesy of Yad Vashem

Friedman has come to a similar conclusion. After her mother pushed her through the window, she found some friends of her father’s, who hid her for the rest of the war.

“I think God just wanted me to live,” she said. “I am not sure any other reason.”

Faithful Viewer logo. Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson