PBS Series NOVA & Expedition Team Reveal Major Find at Holocaust Site

By: Jun. 29, 2016

The award-winning Science series NOVA, produced for PBS by WGBH Boston, is part of an international expedition team led by University of Hartford Professor of Jewish History Richard Freund and Dr. Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority announcing today the discovery of a 100-foot-long UNDERGROUND tunnel made by Jewish prisoners who attempted an audacious escape from the Nazi extermination pits at Ponar on April 15, 1944, the last night of Passover. Only 11 prisoners survived to tell the harrowing story of digging for 76 nights using only their hands, spoons and crude improvised tools. Until now, only the entrance point was known-located in the pit where 80 prisoners were housed, situated about 10 kilometers from the city of Vilnius, Lithuania. Despite efforts since World War II to find the Ponar escape tunnel, the exact location and path of the tunnel remained a mystery until early June 2016.

NOVA joined the international group organized by Freund and Seligman, who initiated the multi-disciplinary investigation with 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; geoscientists at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and a leading cartographer from Duquesne University, as well as students and staff.

In 2015, Freund and Seligman began a project that included the Ponar tunnel search and a joint project to excavate the remains of the destroyed Great Synagogue and Shulhoyf of Vilna. To protect the sanctity of the resting places of the approximately 100,000 total people buried at the massacre site, 70,000 of whom were Jews from the surrounding area who were murdered and thrown into the pits from July 1941 through July 1944, the expedition has employed non-invasive archaeological identification methods and sub-surface geophysical mapping technology-including drone technology, ERT, Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), LiDar and advanced software analysis.

On June 8, 2016, geoscientists successfully located the first segment of the Ponar tunnel using the Electrical Resistivity Tomography (ERT) technique. They found other segments on subsequent days, culminating in Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) confirmation of the contours and direction of the escape tunnel. The research team also successfully located previously unknown mass burial pits in the forest adjacent to the site, which may hold the remains of as many as 10,000 additional people.

Exclusive video clips and photos of the incredible archaeological finds and ERT image scans of the site can be viewed online at NOVA Next and are available to embed or download in connection with today's announcement as of 1:30 am ET. NOVA's exclusive coverage of the expedition is also the subject of a new film slated to premiere on PBS in 2017.

For the upcoming full-length documentary, NOVA is working with key archaeologists, geophysicists and other scholars to tell the story of the fate of the Jews of Vilna and restore the memory of this lost world through the major archaeological excavation of several sites in and around the modern city of Vilnius.

"This find is of tremendous historical and scientific significance, and NOVA is privileged to collaborate on the excavation efforts to uncover and preserve the history of the Lithuanian Holocaust," said Paula S. Apsell, Senior Executive Producer, NOVA. "Pioneering imaging technologies are revolutionizing archaeology and these new tools are helping archaeologists to uncover and retrieve crucial new evidence that can serve as a lasting legacy to reveal a story of courage, ingenuity, resistance and life amid so much tragedy and horror."

"This project represents the new frontier for the study of archaeology and the Holocaust and the integration with national histories," said Richard A. Freund, Maurice Greenberg Professor of Jewish History, University of Hartford. "Geoscience will allow testimonies of survivors-like the account of the escape through the tunnel-and many events of the Holocaust to be researched and understood in new ways for generations to come."

Dr. Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority added, "As an Israeli whose family originated in Lithuania, I was reduced to tears on the discovery of the escape tunnel at Ponar. This discovery is a heartwarming witness to the victory of hope over desperation. The exposure of the tunnel enables us to present, not only the horrors of the Holocaust, but also the yearning for life."

Image courtesy of PBS