The Holocaust's Greatest Tunnel Escape Reaches New York

An assignment for a writing class brought Ira Fuchs to a newspaper article about a tunnel from a Nazi killing pit in Vilna — and inspired his new off-Broadway play about the Jewish prisoners who secretly dug it

Sean Hudock playing Motke Zeidel and Seamus Mulcahy playing Yudi Farber in Ira Fuchs' "Vilna."
Ira Fuchs

As a young man, Ira Fuchs dreamed of becoming a playwright. He almost seemed to be on his way when, as a student at New York’s Queens College, he was able to get a few of his one-act plays performed off-Broadway.

But then real life happened and Fuchs was lured away from the theater by a better-paying job in technology. He spent the better part of the next five decades working and consulting for industry heavyweights like Microsoft and AT&T — jobs that allowed him, he says, “to live comfortably and put two kids through college.”

But he was never really able to shake off the theater bug, and no sooner had he retired about three years ago than he enrolled in a six-week summer program in theater at Hollins University, Virginia.

“It was one of the most intense things I’ve done in my life, and I’ve done intense things,” he recounts.

The toughest course he took that summer was called First Drafts, and it required students to write an entire play each week. “We’d get our prompt on Thursday and would have to turn it in on Sunday,” he recalls. The second week, Fuchs says, the prompt was to find an article from that week’s newspaper and base a play on it. Flipping through the previous day’s New York Times, this headline jumped out at him: “Escape Tunnel, Dug by Hand, is Found at Holocaust Massacre Site.”

“That article picked me, I didn’t pick it,” says Fuchs, 67. “In the next 72 hours, I learned everything you could possibly learn about digging a tunnel by hand.”

The play he wrote for that class, based on that article dated June 29, 2016, opens this week at the 150-seat Theatre at St. Clement’s. The off-Broadway theater on New York’s West 46th Street will host 40 performances of “Vilna” through April 14, and Fuchs hopes that’s just the beginning. “I’d be thrilled if it moves from here to some bigger off-Broadway venues, as well as venues outside New York,” he says. “If it gets good reviews, that’s not inconceivable.”

‘Ground zero’

The article that inspired his play provided the first scientific confirmation of reports that some 80 Jewish prisoners at the Vilna Ghetto had dug themselves an escape tunnel through a killing pit in the nearby Ponar forest in 1944. The 100-foot (30-meter) passageway was discovered by an international team of archaeologists using special X-ray tomography.

Richard Freund, one of the team leaders, described the Ponar killing pits as “ground zero for the Holocaust” and said the mass shootings carried out at the site were the first cases of “systematic murder being done by the Nazis and their assistants.” The article quoted Freund as saying that “one of the greatest mysteries and escape stories of the Holocaust” had been solved.

Ira Fuchs. Says in 72 hours he “learned everything you could possibly learn about digging a tunnel by hand.”
Courtesy of Ira Fuchs

Widely hailed as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, Vilna — now known as Vilnius — had for centuries been a thriving center of Jewish life, learning and culture in Eastern Europe. Just before the outbreak of World War II, about 70,000 Jews lived in the city, where they accounted for close to half the total population.

Between 1941 and 1944, after the ghetto was established, tens of thousands of them were shot to death in the Ponar forest, a few kilometers outside the city, and their bodies were piled into pits. So as not to call attention to their crimes, the Germans initially did not burn the bodies. In 1943, however, when the Russian army began advancing in their direction, a decision was taken to destroy the evidence. A group of 80 Jewish prisoners was ordered to exhume and burn the bodies. They would later be known as the “Burning Brigade.”

Over the course of six months, while pulling out bodies from the pits, these prisoners secretly dug an underground escape route using their hands and some spoons scattered among the rotting corpses. About a dozen of them ultimately escaped to freedom through this tunnel.

In filmed testimony he provided years later for Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, Mordechai “Motke” Zeidel, one of the protagonists in the play, described what he witnessed while exhuming the bodies. “We counted the victims in one pit,” he said. “There were 25,000 of them. There were some among us who recognized their relatives, their wives, by their clothes. They even found photographs.”

He said sticks were used to poke the corpses and pull them out of the pits. “We then put them on the stretchers, head to head, foot to foot. The crematorium held about 3,000 bodies, and we’d light it up. It was horrific.“ (Zeidel, who joined the partisans before immigrating to Israel, was chosen to light a torch on Holocaust Memorial Day in 2005.)

“Vilna” follows the dramatic and harrowing events in the lives of two men who took part in this extraordinary feat, from the time they met as 11-year-old boys in 1922 until their daring escape from the killing pits. Although they are based on real-life characters, says Fuchs, some of the details of their lives have been invented.

The Motke Zeidel character comes from what the playwright describes as “the upper crust” of Vilna society. His family owns a successful glove-manufacturing business and his mother is a physician and university professor. Before the Nazi occupation, he manages to complete his training as a lawyer. Yudi Farber, his best friend, is an orphan taken in by the Zeidel family. A civil engineer by training, Farber plays a key role in designing the escape tunnel.

The cast of characters also includes well-known Vilnaites like Abba Kovner, a leader of the Jewish resistance in the ghetto, and Jacob Gens, head of the local Judenrat — the Nazi-appointed Jewish administrative council.

Sophia Blum as Chayele Rosenthatl in Ira Fuchs' "Vilna."
Ira Fuchs

‘A keeper’

The two-act play has undergone significant revisions since it was first handed in as a student assignment two and a half years ago. But amazingly enough, says Fuchs, “there are still at least six or seven scenes that haven’t been touched since then.”

He says he received very little feedback from his instructors and fellow students back then — certainly nothing to indicate where the play would be headed this week. “It didn’t matter,” he says. “I knew it would be a keeper.”

“Vilna” director Joseph Discher served as associate artistic director of The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey for 20 years. His most recent credits include the off-Broadway world premiere of “The Violin.” Most of the funding for “Vilna,” says Fuchs, came from friends, family and his own pockets.

Asked how he succeeded in getting his play noticed by the powers that be in the New York theater world, he says: “I literally insinuated myself in the producing community. A lot of these people ended up coming to the readings I held.”

Although he has no direct family connection to the Holocaust, Fuchs says both his sets of grandparents immigrated to the United States in the early 20th century from the area known as the Pale of Settlement, which, coincidentally or not, included Vilna.

Fuchs says the research he invested in his play has turned him into a sort of expert on the place. In the course of fundraising for his project, he often spoke to Jewish groups about the history of Vilna. “What’s amazing is how many people have a connection to this one city,” he says. “Living in Vilna back then was like living in New York City today. It was a special place in the world.”