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Extraordinary Courage in the Face of Unimaginable Horror – The Story of the ‘Holocaust Escape Tunnel’
April 19, 2017  | By David Hinckley

One of the great frustrations in discussing the Holocaust is that the numbers quickly become so large they often begin to feel abstract.

So, in many ways, the most poignant number in Holocaust Escape Tunnel, a new PBS Nova production that airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings), is 12.

Twelve is the number of Jewish prisoners who escaped a death encampment in Lithuania in 1944 by digging a tunnel literally under the feet of their Nazi captors.

Escape Tunnel focuses on the scientific and archeological teams that uncovered the long-unknown path the tunnel followed.

That said, Escape Tunnel is hardly a tale of unequivocal triumph.

The tunnel was dug in the Ponar forest of Lithuania outside the ancient city of Vilna, a cultural center and home to one of the most vibrant Jewish populations in Eastern Europe.

When Germany pushed Soviet Union troops out of Lithuania and Vilna in June 1941, German officials immediately began rounding up and executing Jews, as well as other “undesirables.”

A number of historians in Escape Tunnel pinpoint Ponar forest as the place where the Holocaust shifted into gear, escalating from ominous threats to physical annihilation.

When a riflery unit of Lithuanian collaborators began shooting and killing 400-500 Jewish civilians each day, the Nazis took it as hard evidence that systematic mass execution was a viable means to Adolf Hitler’s envisioned end.  

By 1944, when the Soviets took Lithuania back, the Germans had killed 70,000 Jews, about 95% of the Jewish population of Lithuania.

They were buried, thousands at a time, in pits that had been dug in the forest by the Soviets to store gasoline and other military supplies. Six of those mass graves have been located, including one by the team filmed for this Nova special. Up to six more remain somewhere in the Ponar forest.

As the Soviets approached the ruined Vilna in mid-1944, the Germans formed a squad of 80 Jewish prisoners to dig up the graves and burn the bodies, thus destroying all evidence of this part of the “final solution.”

The “Burning Brigade,” knowing they would be killed themselves when the task was completed, spent 76 nights digging a 100-foot tunnel under the German encampment. Shackled and without supplies, they dug with their hands, spoons and any makeshift implement they could fashion.

On the final night of Passover in 1944, they made their run, and by sheer numbers, that was also not a clean victory. Only 12 prisoners made it through.

Fortunately, numbers don’t tell the whole story. That even a dozen men overcame those odds and that lived to tell the story of Ponar shows a resilience of the human spirit that is almost biblical.

That resilience was not, alas, honored by all. When the Soviets recaptured Vilna, they leveled every trace of its Jewish institutions. The historic temple, center of Jewish culture, was torn down and a school built on top of its remains.

The message, Escape Tunnel notes, was clear: If any Jews survived, they no longer had a home or were welcome here.

Today, 70-plus years later, a small Jewish community has endured. Nova visits the new temple, which houses artifacts from the pre-war temple and culture, and perhaps even more importantly, aids in the vital work of ensuring the Holocaust and its lessons are not forgotten.

Toward that essential end, perhaps the story of 12 men who survived will help rehumanize 100,000 men, women and children who did not.

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