Paula Apsell estimates she worked on 700 films over her 40 years at WGBH’s iconic science documentary series, NOVA, before her retirement in 2019. For 35 of those years, she was NOVA’s executive producer, supervising high-impact documentaries on topics such as smallpox eradication, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering.
But as someone who considers Judaism central to her life, one NOVA program was particularly meaningful to her. Broadcast around the time of Yom Hashoah in 2017, “Holocaust Escape Tunnel” documented the work of archaeologists using advanced scientific tools to find a tunnel dug by Jewish prisoners inside a Nazi execution site near Vilna in Lithuania.
That site – Ponar – is the location of mass burial pits and graves where Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators murdered 100,000 people between 1941 and 1944, including up to 70,000 Jews.
“To have a discovery take place right in front of your cameras – and one so important as that of the escape tunnel – doesn’t happen every day,” said Apsell, who grew up in Marblehead where her parents were founding members of Temple Emanu-El, and now lives in Boston. “I found it tremendously exciting.”
But it also made her wonder: How unusual was this? Were there other tunnels, other hidden histories, other examples of resistance by Jews against the Nazis?
“We all know about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. But here was this one heroic episode I didn’t know about. How many other uprisings were there in ghettos and even in concentration camps?”
The question kept floating around in her mind after she retired. But one day, the idea for a film about Jewish resistance during the Holocaust hit her “like a ton of bricks.” She was having coffee in her kitchen with Richard Freund, an archaeologist and Holocaust scholar who’d played a central role in “Holocaust Escape Tunnel.” He was describing his new book, “The Archaeology of the Holocaust: Vilna, Rhodes, and Escape Tunnels,” which is about his work uncovering evidence in Lithuania, Poland, and elsewhere.
“I looked at Richard and he looked at me and I think we both had the idea at the same time,” Apsell said. “I realized any one example of Jewish resistance like the escape tunnel in Ponar can be seen as an anomaly, so the idea of researching and uncovering all these unknown stories of Jewish resistance struck me as terribly important and compelling. And when [my husband, Sheldon] said, “You have to do this,” that was kind of it.”
With the help of a lawyer from her synagogue, she set up an independent film company, Leading Edge Productions.
She’s now executive producer and interview director of a full-length feature documentary with the working title, “Resistance: They Fought Back.”
And while she lives with the Holocaust every day in her work, she said, the film has taken on a new resonance for her with the situation in Ukraine. “I am seeing a holocaust all over again, this time in Ukraine,” she said. “Once again, the world is standing by, watching as innocent civilians are murdered, letting them fight our fight for freedom and democracy.”
There is another parallel, too, she said. “As the Jews resisted the Nazis, so are the Ukrainians resisting under the brilliant leadership of their brave Jewish President Zelensky. I am filled with admiration for their courage, just as I am inspired by Jewish resistance during the Holocaust.”
Expected to be released by the end of 2022 or early 2023, the film is a coproduction with Lone Wolf Media in Maine in collaboration with the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, which is preparing materials for classrooms and for a social media campaign to reach teens and young adults.
The film, she said, challenges the dominant narrative that Jews did not fight back against the Nazis, but rather went to their deaths “like sheep to the slaughter,” as the common trope goes. “Our film reveals that to be the myth it always has been.”
As Apsell plunged herself into research, she saw that a lot of information about the resistance is in fact known to scholars. “But the problem is it hasn’t reached the general public,” she said. “I think that with the focus on the approximately six million Jews killed and the horrors of the Holocaust, victimhood becomes an overwhelming story.”
She learned there were at least 60 rebellions in ghettos, six in concentration camps, and 18 in forced labor camps. They took place even in the killing centers of Treblinka, Sobibor, and Auschwitz. Thousands of Jews fought with partisan brigades. Interviews her team conducted with survivors both in person or through testimonies they gave before they died revealed that resistance against the Nazis took many forms, not all of which involved arms or violence.
“Some were active escapes,” Freund said in an interview. “Some are cultural – they would have plays, readings, cultural events. Some are religious – Jews creating a small synagogue setting to celebrate the holidays and Shabbat. That’s resistance!”
“There were illegal soup kitchens in ghettos that Jews opened to feed the hungry,” said Apsell. “There were clandestine schools for children, people who secretly documented [Nazi] war crimes.” They filmed a 96-year-old survivor in Israel who saved thousands of lives by forging documents in Hungary to enable Jews to buy food, get work, and find apartments so they wouldn’t be deported.
Closer to home, they interviewed a violinist in Brookline named Dana Mazurkevich who was born in a Lithuanian ghetto in 1941 and smuggled out as an infant in a potato sack; she spent her early years with a non-Jewish family until she was reunited with her parents after the war.
There were doctors and nurses who set up clandestine medical and nursing schools in the Warsaw Ghetto. “And when things got really desperate and the Germans would literally come into the hospitals and throw children out of windows, the doctors and nurses would give them morphine to not subject them to the horror,” Apsell said. “We filmed the grave of one of the doctors, Adina Blady Szwajger.”
“Most people don’t recognize these [as acts of resistance] because they are not interested,” Freund said. “They have just categorized the Jews as victims of history. If you have a view that Jews are not going to resist, you aren’t going to look for these kind of things.”
Many of these stories will be told in the film through interviews or dramatizations based on survivor stories. And though it is not explicitly a science film, Apsell said, the filmmakers also accompanied Freund and his team of geoscientists to several key sites in Holocaust history. Among them were the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto; the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sobibor death camps where rebellions had occurred; and the Ninth Fort prison near Kaunus in Lithuania, where thousands of Jews were murdered and graves are unmarked.
To avoid disturbing the ground where digging could desecrate victims’ bodies, the scientists used non-invasive technologies – ground-penetrating radar and electrical resistivity tomography (Freund describes this as “M.R.I. for the ground.”)
In some places, they found evidence of mass graves, and in a subsequent excavation they located artifacts from the Warsaw Ghetto, including pages of a prayer book.
Not everything they were hoping for could be found, in part because authorities in some places prohibited or restricted the scientists’ work. But filming is ongoing, and Apsell continues the “intimidating” work of raising money for educational materials.
“They’re very important to me,” she said. “Young people’s ignorance about the Holocaust is appalling. And as the Whoopi Goldberg incident showed – and she is a very smart lady – if someone like that has little understanding of what the Nazis would do, can you imagine how widespread the ignorance is of Nazi resistance?
“It feels like when a story falls into your hands and you feel most people don’t know about it, it’s really important to pursue it. My husband said I flunked retirement. It hasn’t been easy but it’s an amazing story and a real gift to me.”
Linda Matchan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Read about a violinist Dana Mazurkevich here: https://jewishjournal.org/2022/03/17/smuggled-out-of-a-jewish-ghetto-in-a-sack-she-now-makes-beautiful-music/