From 1941 to 1943, a Nazi labor camp existed in the town of Novogrudok, Belarus. When the Nazis invaded, first there were mass shootings of Jews in the forest. Then a group of about 30 farmhouses in the Novogrudok area were used to ghettoize the Jews. Then came slave labor. On a night in September, 1943, the last 250 Jewish slave laborers escaped via a tunnel that they had dug. Two thirds made it to the safety of the forests and the partisans. Filmmaker Dror Shwartz accompanies a group of 3 surviving escapees from that slave labor camp and 50 of their descendants back to the campsite in their attempt to find the tunnel that saved their lives. His resultant film of both depth and emotion is called Tunnel of Hope.
This is a compelling and thorough documentary film. It includes 1931 footage of the town and interviews with a fascinating array of characters, including the survivors/escapees, their descendants and even with locals, some of whom actually lived during that time. There is the story told by the descendants of the dog catcher's family who tried to save some Jews and were shot by the Nazis as a result. The grandchildren of the escapees are interviewed, one expresses his relief knowing that his grandfather and the other escapees took matters into their own hands and took action against the Nazi war machine.
Then there are the escapees themselves who talk about the different opinions among the prisoners about the dangers of escaping. They tell stories of how they dug the tunnel in 1943 which makes for a fascinating film story. They had ingenuous ideas -- cutting up a blanket to create buckets to remove the large amounts of earth, hooking up an electric line to light the long tunnel as they were digging, putting in pipes for air ducts and a wagon for moving along the dirt. They took turns digging, helping out with food for the diggers when they missed work.
In the modern-day search for the tunnel, first an underground sonar operator and an archeologist from Grodno University are brought in to decide where to dig. Then the digging begins. In order to build tension, the digging is interlaced throughout the film. As the descendants of the escapees are digging and wondering whether or not the tunnel will be found, the viewer is also wondering and hoping that the tunnel is actually there and will be unearthed.
The film is meticulously put together, integrating all of the different elements, creating a compelling film with a lot of tension and leading up to a strong conclusion. It is also interesting to look at the escapees themselves -- certainly not heroic characters but rather normal people who worked together to ensure their survival.
Tunnel of Hope (documentary, 88 minutes) is available from Go2Films.