Science helps verify an unbelievable Holocaust escape account

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE TIMES OF ISRAEL

Jews digging a trench in which they were later buried in, after being shot, in Ponary, Poland. (Courtesy of Yad Vashem)
The escape tunnel at Ponar is witness to ‘the victory of hope over desperation’

Science helps verify an unbelievable Holocaust escape account

The story of a band of Lithuanian Jews who dug their way to freedom was met with widespread skepticism over the years. A new TV program sheds light on their incredible tale

April 15, 2017, 8:38 am 4

LOS ANGELES (JTA) – A one-hour TV program airing next week on PBS links brings advanced scientific techniques to bear on an incredible Holocaust escape story.

“Holocaust Escape Tunnel,” a “Nova” production to be shown April 19, sheds new light on the attempt by 80 imprisoned men and women — mostly Lithuanian Jews — to make a break for freedom in the face of Nazi bullets. The show documents the application of scientific methods to verify what would otherwise be a nearly unbelievable story.

The documentary is set in and around Vilna, the Yiddish and Hebrew designation for Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. At its peak, before World War II and the Holocaust, the city boasted a Jewish population of some 77,000, had 105 synagogues, the largest Jewish library in the world and six daily Jewish newspapers.

The vigorous Jewish life in Vilna started to decline in 1940, when the Soviet Union absorbed Lithuania. It was almost completely destroyed after German armies attacked Russia in 1941, quickly conquering Lithuania.

Within a year Nazis shot and killed – in the days before Auschwitz-type gas chambers – most of the Jews and tossed their corpses into huge pits in the nearby Ponar Forest, initially dug by the Soviets to store fuel and ammunition. One pit alone held 20,000 to 25,000 corpses.

In late 1943, with Russian armies advancing from the east and partisans attacking German supply lines in surrounding forests, Hitler’s headquarters in Berlin decided to cover up the monumental massacre by ordering that all the bodies be cremated.

The Germans ordered the region’s surviving Jews, along with some Russian prisoners of war, to first chop down large trees in the forests, cut them into planks, form huge layers of wood, spread the bodies between the layers and then set them aflame. Methodically, the Germans formed 10 “burning brigades,” each consisting of 80 prisoners, mainly Jewish.

After a day’s work, the “burners” were held in pits and their feet shackled. One such unit, consisting of 76 men and four women, decided it was duty bound to pass on the truth to the world and future generations.

The prisoners freed their legs by cutting the shackles with a smuggled-in file and, for the next 76 days, using only spoons and their hands, carved out a 2-by-2-foot-wide tunnel extending 130 feet.

April 15, 1944, the last day of Passover, was set for the escape. As the first prisoners left the tunnel, guards opened fire and killed almost the entire group. But 12 made it out and cut through the wire fence. They joined a detachment of partisans commanded by the legendary Abba Kovner.

At the end of the war, all but one of the escapees were still alive and eventually settled elsewhere, mainly in pre-state Israel and the United States.

Among the thousands, if not millions, of post-Holocaust remembrances, the story of the Vilna escapees was met with widespread skepticism even by the future wives and children of the 11 survivors, said historian Richard Freund, who is prominently featured in the documentary.

The skepticism was fueled by the absence of any physical evidence of the alleged tunnel. Lithuania — already beleaguered by charges of its wartime collaboration with the Germans — showed little enthusiasm for further investigations.

In recent years, however, with a change of attitude by a new generation of Lithuanians, their government was ready to seek the truth about the Holocaust and invite outside experts to participate in the endeavor.

An initial contact was Jon Seligman, a leading researcher with the Israel Antiquities Authority. Freund, of the University of Hartford, also was interested — he had directed archaeological projects at the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland, as well as at six ancient sites in Israel. In 2014, the two scholars decided to cooperate on the project, spurred by their similar ancestral descent from Vilna Jews. A third member of the documentary team with Jewish roots in Eastern Europe was Paula Apsell, the senior producer for “Nova.”

The infamous “Burning Pit” used by the Nazis to burn the remains of their Jewish victims in order to rid themselves of all evidence. (Ezra Wolfinger for WGBH/JTA)

The infamous “Burning Pit” used by the Nazis to burn the remains of their Jewish victims in order to rid themselves of all evidence. (Ezra Wolfinger for WGBH/JTA)

Seligman and Freund had initially set their sights on exploring the fate of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, once the center of Jewish worship and scholarship, which had been destroyed by the Germans. The Soviets later razed the remains and built a school there.

The two scholars — backed by other experts and teams of young volunteers — made some dramatic discoveries at the Great Synagogue site, but also were intrigued by reports on the escape tunnel.

In approaching the latter, the project leaders ruled out using the traditional method of digging into an archaeological site with spades and machines.

“Traditional archaeology uses a highly destructive method,” Freund told JTA. “You only have one chance to get it right and you can’t repeat an experiment. Additionally, in our case, we were determined not to desecrate the site and victimize the dead a second time.”

Instead, the teams used two noninvasive techniques that are widely employed in gas and oil explorations. One approach was through Ground Penetrating Radar, or GPR, which uses radar pulses to return images of objects found beneath the earth’s surface. The results were analyzed in Los Angeles by geophysicist Dean Goodman, who developed the GPR software.

In the second approach, called Electrical Resistivity Tomography, or ETR, scientists investigate sub-surface materials through their electrical properties. The same technique is widely used in medical imaging of the human body.

Thanks to these techniques, in 2016 the investigators were able to scientifically confirm the existence and dimensions of a wartime escape tunnel, as JTA reported at the time. The New York Times listed the feat as one of the top science stories of the year.

One of the successful tunnel escapees was Shlomo Gol, whose son Abraham (Abe) was born in a displaced persons camp in Munich, Germany. The elder Gol died in 1986 at the age of 77, and his son will be 68 in July. The family initially immigrated to Israel, then moved to the United States.

Abe Gol, who lives in Pembroke Pines, Florida, told JTA that friends recalled his father as a young man full of life and as a natural leader. However, the father young Abe knew “withdrew within himself” and did not speak of his experiences.

The little he learned of his father’s past came in two ways: One was the annual reunion, on the last day of Passover, held by escapees who had settled in Israel. At dinner, when shots of vodka loosened tongues, the men talked of the past, paying no attention to the boy listening in.

In later years, Gol discovered that his father had kept a written record of his past, which the son translated into English. One small recollection from the diary: the persistent stink from the combination of kerosene and tar the prisoners had to pour on the wood pyres to fan the flames.

At the time of the tunnel’s discovery, Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority wrote, “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 this tunnel enables us to present not only the horrors of the Holocaust, but also the yearning for life.”

With the deaths of the last eyewitnesses of the Holocaust, Freund said, historians will have to rely increasingly on yet unknown scientific and technological advances to preserve and enlarge our knowledge of the great tragedy of the 20th century.

“Holocaust Escape Tunnel” will air April 19 at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific times; 8 p.m. Central time. Check your local PBS station for details.

21 Year Old Female British Student Stabbed To Death In Jerusalem

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST)

A British exchange student was fatally stabbed Friday by a Palestinian attacker just steps from Jerusalem’s Old City, where thousands of Jews and Christians gathered for religious holidays at one of the busiest times of the year, officials said.

Thousands of people filled parts of the ancient city: Jews to celebrate Passover, which ends Monday in Israel; and Christian pilgrims for Good Friday. The attack took place inside a car of the city’s light-rail train near the entrance to the Old City’s Christian Quarter.

The woman identified as Hannah Bladon, 21, was treated for stab wounds in a hospital and later died, police said.

Bladon was an exchange student from the University of Birmingham in Britain, and she arrived in Israel in January to spend a semester at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the latter said in a statement.

Israel’s Shin Bet security agency named the suspected attacker as 57-year-old Jamal Tamimi from East Jerusalem, a mostly Arab area. They said he had mental health issues and had attempted suicide this year while hospitalized. Tamimi was arrested at the scene, the report said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu compared the attack to other violent acts around the world in recent weeks. “Radical Islam strikes at the capitals of the world and, unfortunately, terrorism has hit the capital of Israel — Jerusalem,” he wrote on Facebook.

Israel considers Jerusalem its united capital, and all of its official offices are based there. Palestinians want part of Jerusalem as the capital of any future state.

Friday’s killing is the latest in a spate of stabbing, shooting and vehicular attacks by Palestinians over the past 18 months.

Israel has been accused internationally of being too heavy-handed in response to the attacks, which have left nearly 50 Israelis and more than 200 Palestinians dead. Israel says most of the Palestinians killed were attempting to carry out attacks against Israeli civilians, soldiers or police officers.

The targeted stabbings and other attacks started in October 2015 with almost daily assaults. Incidents slowed in mid-2016 and, with Israeli forces stepping up their response, fatal attacks are now rare.

The violence contrasts with the first and second intifadas of the 1980s and 2000s, which were centrally organized and included mass unrest.

Jewish Passover: 4 Steps To Breaking Bad Habits

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CHADBAD.ORG)

Passover’s 4 Steps to Breaking Bad Habits

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During the Passover Seder we recount in detail the plight of the Israelites as slaves in ancient Egypt, and we celebrate their eventual salvation. However, the Seder is not just about commemorating past events.

The Talmudic sage Rabban Gamaliel II called upon us to include a personal element in the rituals of the Seder. “In every generation, a person must see themselves as if they personally left Egypt,”1 he instructed, leaving it to us to figure out how to make this ancient tale of redemption relevant to us today.

One suggestion was offered by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn of Lubavitch, the third Rebbe of Chabad, also known as the Tzemach Tzedek. He viewed the rabbinic instruction to drink four cups of wine (or grape juice for those who avoid alcohol) during the Seder as a framework for achieving personal freedom.2

Each cup was instituted to reflect another expression G‑d used to promise the Jews that they would be rescued from Egypt and become a nation with the power to determine their own destiny.3 If we follow this path, the Tzemach Tzedek writes, it can lead us on a personal journey towards freedom from any negative practices that hold us back.

Here is my personal understanding of those four 4 steps to breaking bad habits, based on G‑d’s 4 promises:

1. Stop

G‑d’s first expression of redemption to the Israelites was, “I will take you out” of Egypt. Before you get clean, you must get out of the mud. The first step to breaking free from a habit is to simply stop doing it. Medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides says, “A sinner should abandon his sins,” and suggests that you control your thoughts before they trigger a repeat offence.4 Immediately stop, even if you have already gone at it again.

2. Adopt

After the Israelites left Egypt, they were ill at ease with their new identity. G‑d promised: “I will save you,” and supplied them with protective clouds of glory and manna from the sky. The second step on the path to breaking free is to immerse yourself in an alternative, positive reality. When dropping an old habit, adopt a new one to take its place and fill the void. Happiness researcher Gretchen Rubin says that it is much easier to form new habits after a change in life. Adopt your new activity steadily and continuously so it becomes the new you.

3. Rationalize

G‑d gave the Israelites the holy Torah on Mount Sinai as a roadmap to living a meaningful life. The expression, “I will deliver you,” alludes to the study of Torah, which spiritually and intellectually transforms you. The third step on this journey is to establish the ethical reasoning of your decision and an understanding of the new person you are trying to become. As the Israelites said after receiving the Torah, naaseh v’nishma (“we will do and we will understand”). After you “do” by adopting a positive activity, the next step on the journey to change is learning and understanding.

4. Internalize

As the Israelites wandered through the desert, G‑d promised them that He would bring them to the Promised Land. Knowing that they would have a place to call their own allowed them to establish an emotional connection with their new selves. This positive emotional bond is reflected in the expression, “I will take you as a nation.” The fourth step on this path is to not only rationalize and understand the person you want to become, but to also fully internalize the change within you, because emotion plays a big part in influencing the decisions we make.

“Through the story we are redeemed from Egypt,”5 the Tzemach Tzedek once commented. You have the power to make the Passover narrative your own success story.

FOOTNOTES

1.

Pesachim 116b.

2.

Ohr HaTorah, Shemot, vol. 1, p. 185.

4.

Mishneh Torah, Laws of Teshuvah, 2:2.

5.

Rebbe Rayatz, eve of 20 Kislev 5692; Sefer Hamaamarim 5710, p. 197.

Rabbi Yehuda L. Ceitlin is the outreach director of Chabad Tucson, and associate rabbi of Cong. Young Israel of Tucson. He coordinates the annual Yarchei Kallah summit of Chabad scholars, and was on the editorial staff at Chabad.org.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org’s copyright policy.

If The Haggadah Has Got It Correct Then Western Education Has It All Wrong

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CHABAD.ORG)

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What’s So Wise About the Wise Child?

They say the Haggadah never ends. That makes sense, because the Haggadah is the classic Jewish guide to education, and education never ends.

So now that we’ve done our Seder for the 3,329th year, and while it’s still Passover, I’d like to open a discussion on how we educate our kids. And I’d like to start by listening to what the Haggadah is telling us.

It seems it’s telling us we’re doing it all wrong.

Here’s evidence: How do we test, monitor and measure the success of our students? By asking questions, right? (Like I just did.)

And indeed, the average middle-grade teacher asks around 400 questions a day. That’s about two per minute. After 15 years, a teacher has asked at least one million questions. The student has asked if he can go to the bathroom.After 14 and a half years, that’s a million questions. The average student, however, generally only asks two or three questions a week—most commonly, “Can I go to the bathroom?” In high school, not much better, with about ten questions a day. Compare that to preschool kids, who ask an average of 100 questions a day.

Some will tell you that’s the Socratic method. We’re attempting to elicit intelligence from students by battering them with questions they never thought of asking.

But the Haggadah does the opposite. Rather than evaluating children by their ability to answer, it identifies them in four categories by their ability to ask.

Questions Are Rich

That turns everything around.

For one thing, from a child’s correct answers, you often know very little. Maybe he simply has a good memory. Maybe he’s good at guessing what you want to hear. At very best, a child’s answers only tell us what that child knows.

But theA child’s answers tells us what he knows. A child’s questions tell us who he is. child’s questions provide a window into the child’s mind and soul. A child’s questions tell us who that child is.

Every child is on a critical mission to make sense of things, to find the meaning behind everything, to put the pieces together. But each child sees a different world, through different eyes. So each child discovers that meaning in his or her particular way.

So that only once we know what this child is looking for, and how he is looking for it, only then we can assist him to find it. And that is education—assisting the child on his or her particular journey of discovering meaning.

Ask! Please Ask!

Let’s start from the beginning: The Haggadah is designed to incite questions.The Haggadah is designed to incite questions. How does it do that? By breaking the routine.

Generally, a festive Jewish meal begins with a blessing on the wine. We then all proceed to wash our hands, return to the table, and say a blessing on the bread.

On the Seder night, we also start with the wine. And then the hand-washing. And we return to the table. And then we take small vegetable and dip it in some sort of liquid, and eat it.

Why the change?

You’ll hear all sorts of reasons, but there’s one definitive answer cited in the Code of Jewish Law: We do it so that someone will ask a question.

And if they ask, what do we answer? We answer that they got it right. They asked a question.

Which means that the question is of prime value, even when there is no answer. As the ancient rabbis said, “Even though we have no answer for this question, once the child is asking, he will ask more questions.”

And why is that important? Because, to those ancient rabbis, it’s obvious that you can’t teach a child a thing until the child has a question.

Passing by a ninth grade classroom in a yeshiva, I hear the teacher lecturing: “Okay, so the ultimate reason for the creation of all things is…”

The diligent students take notes. The rest stare into empty space. The teacher may as well be speaking about the average rainfall in Indonesia.

You can’t teach a thing until you have first awakened a question.

A question creates a vacuum, a space in the brain to fit new knowledge. Just like a car is useless if you live in a big city where there’s no place to park it, and a meal goes in the trash if there’s no one to eat it, so the most satisfying answer in the world is meaningless to the child who never had the question. He has no place in his skull to store it. It’s just a distraction and confusion for his mind from its true quest—to find meaning.

Yes, in case the child has no questions, we provide some, in the form of the Ma Nishtana—”Why is this night different from all other nights?”

But that’s Plan B. Plan A is that the children will ask questions of their own. And you, the parent, will wrack your brains finding answers for them.

Answering the Children

That brings us to another vital lesson from the Haggadah: We don’t answer the question.Don’t answer the question. Answer the child. We answer the child.

“The wise child—what does he say?” Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitchwould point out that in Hebrew, with just a slight change in punctuation, those words can read quite differently: “The wise child—what is he? He says…”

Through the question, we see the child. And that is who we answer.

The wise child articulates his question. He’s obviously thought it through well and knows exactly what he’s looking for.

If he’s wise, why does he ask? Why doesn’t he just have faith, like a good religious boy, and accept all his parents and teachers tell him?

He asks because he has faith. Like a scientist who believes that there will always be an explanation if we will just dig a little further, he believes that there will always be meaning, and deeper meaning, and yet deeper. His mind is not fettered by faith, but driven by it. And his faith, in turn, is enriched by his questions.

Something neat Rabbi Avraham Altein just pointed out: If there are no children to ask, no guests, nobody, the halacha is that you have to ask the question to yourself. According to Maimonides, even if the children have asked the questions, the parents must also ask.

Get that? You know the answer, but you have to ask again. Really ask. Revisit the darkness of “I don’t know”—as though you never knew. Because last year’s answer no longer satisfies you. That’s how you get to a new light. And that’s what it means to be wise.

All the Children

Which all explains why the Wise Child often ends up getting all the attention, while the others are left out.

But no, there are three more children in the room.There are three more children in the room. They are also our children. They are also our children.

Like the Wicked Child. He’s next in line in expertise at asking questions. After all, he has identified exactly what it is that is bothering him. Problem is, he’s not interested in an answer.

But he’s still number two, because something bothers him. The whole Seder bothers him. Which means he’s alive and kicking. Which means there’s something there to work with.

The Simple Child asks, but he’s not sure what he’s asking. He’s the one that is too often ignored. Since you don’t really get his question (because neither does he), he never gets an answer. In the times we live in, that’s a precarious situation. Because that may one day mean to him that there is no answer. And if so, he will have a different question: “Why am I doing all this if there is no answer?”

So the Haggadah instructs you to tell him stories of wonders and miracles. That is his world, that is what he sees. He is in wonderment. Go with it—take that wonderment and nurture it, all the way. Don’t give him any less than the Wise Child, or the Wicked One. And don’t demand that he become the Wise Child—lest you push him towards his cynical brother.

As for The Child Who Doesn’t Know How To Ask—In illustrated Haggadahs, he’s always a baby with a pacifier in his mouth. But that’s nonsense.The Inquisitively Challenged Child got 100% on his Haggadah test. I’ll bet he got 100/100 on his Passover Haggadah finals.

You know why I think that? Look at the answer we give him: “For the sake of this, G‑d did what He did for me when I left Egypt.” That’s a deep answer to an intelligent person.

So what does it mean that “he doesn’t know how to ask”?

Many of the ideas I’m writing here were sparked years ago by a conversation with an Israeli researcher, a student of renowned educational psychologist, Benjamin Bloom, who visited our school along with many high schools across North America. At each school, the researcher would ask the principal, “Give me your best students, one by one, in a private room.”

When the student would enter, she would just sit there for a minute or two. Then she would ask, “Do you have any questions?”

Silence.

Then: “I’m visiting from Israel.”

More silence.

“I’m doing research.”

You get the gist of it.

But then, she would ask the principal to bring in the troublemakers, one-by-one. They would enter, and immediately break into, “Why am I here? Who are you? What is this all about? Israel? What’s that like?”

Open For This Child

So this child #4, a bright child who excels in school, why does this child not ask? Why is he not in search of understanding and meaning? What went wrong?

My guess? He went to school. There he was rewarded for answering questions just the way the teacher likes. But he was never rewarded for asking the really good ones that might disrupt the class, or the questions that the teacher might not have the answers to.

So Teach him, by example, that it’s even ok to question the most basic assumptions.for this child, “You must open for him.” Open his mouth. Teach him to ask. Teach him that it’s ok to ask. Teach him that it’s even ok to question the most basic assumptions. How? By example. By showing him how you yourself question assumptions.

That could explain another one of those Seder tidbits that should spark a thousand questions—or at least some annoyance. Immediately after the episode of the four children, a heavy chunk of Talmudic exegesis plops down upon us, seemingly telling us nothing of the Exodus narrative or the people sitting here.

Here’s the classic translation:

One may think that [the discussion of the exodus] must be from the first of the month. The Torah therefore says, “On that day.” “On that day,” however, could mean while it is yet daytime; the Torah therefore says, “It is because of this.” The expression “because of this” can only be said when matzah and maror are placed before you.

But Rabbi Don Yitzchak Abravanel (15th century) tells us it’s actually as relevant as you can get. It’s a response to that Inquisitively Challenged Child. It’s about opening his mind with a question that challenges the most unquestioned assumption of the entire ritual: Who says it’s Passover tonight?

Try reading it like this:

You: Hold on, maybe we were supposed to do this Seder on Rosh Chodesh—15 days ago on the first day of the month!

Child: Umm. Why then?

You: Because that’s when God told Moses about the mitzvah of Pesach.

Child: Okay, so we messed up.

You: Nope, it says on that day.

Child: Okay, so let’s get on. What do we say next?

You: Not so simple. Because then we should be doing it during the day. Now it’s night already.

Child: So it’s over. Let’s eat.

You: Not so fast. You see, it says, for the sake of this stuff. Meaning this matzah and bitter herbs that we eat on the night of Pesach. So we have to wait until we’re supposed to eat that stuff—and that’s tonight.

Child: Why on earth do we have to tell a story to food?

See? It worked!


So here’s what I’m taking from my Seder into the coming year:

Torah comes to us in a beautiful package, wrapped and tied. The only way to untie those knots and open up its treasures is by asking the right questions whenever and wherever they come to mind, and asking them without fear or shame.

How do we get ourselves,How can we teach the faith and courage it takes not to fear a good question? our children, other Jews, and everyone else who can benefit, to ask? How can we teach the faith and courage it takes not to fear a good question?

If we can find answers to those questions, we will have half of education nailed.

What’s So Wise About the Wise Child?

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman’s writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org’s copyright policy.