Shortly after attacking the Soviet Union in June 1941, Nazi Germany seized neighboring Lithuania and its historic capital, Vilnius. Home to more than 100,000 Jewish residents, Vilnius was a vibrant center of Jewish culture referred to as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” That all changed once the Nazis arrived.
Within days of the invasion, the indiscriminate killing began. The Nazis and their Lithuanian auxiliaries seized thousands of Jews in Vilnius and took them five miles outside the city to a pit excavated in the Ponar forest, known today as Paneriai, where they were shot at close range along with Poles and Russian prisoners of war and dumped into mass graves. According to the New York Times, approximately 150 Lithuanian collaborators killed the prisoners—usually in groups of about 10. The Ponar massacre continued for three years and took the lives of approximately 100,000 people, including 70,000 Lithuanian Jews.
As the Soviet Red Army closed in on Lithuania in 1943, the Nazis and their Lithuanian sympathizers sought to cover up all evidence of the genocide. They ordered 80 Jewish prisoners from the Stutthof concentration camp to burn the bodies. With their legs shackled, the captives spent their days exhuming the mass graves, piling the bodies on logs harvested from the surrounding forest, incinerating the corpses and burying the ashes.
“Our work consisted of taking the bodies out of the pits and burning them in the crematoria,” said survivor Mordechai Zeidel in oral testimony recorded on the Yad Vashem web site. “We had pokers that we had to stick into the bodies to pull them up.” Adding to the horror, the so-called “Burning Brigade” knew the same fate awaited them if they couldn’t escape.
Confined at night to the deep pit where their families, friends and thousands upon thousands of their countrymen had been executed, the prisoners secretly started to build a tunnel with their bare hands and small spoons that had been recovered from victims. For 76 nights, the shackled captives painstakingly carved a tunnel in the direction of the surrounding forest.
On the evening of April 15, 1944—the final night of Passover—the prisoners cut their shackles with a nail file and squeezed through the 2-foot-square entrance to the hand-carved tunnel. Between 5 and9 feet below the forest floor, approximately 40 captives crawled through the 100-foot-long tunnel before the noise aroused the attention of the camp’s guards who pursued them with dogs and guns. A dozen prisoners managed to escape into the dark night, and 11 survived to join the partisan forces fighting the Nazis.
Those 11 escapees bore testimony to the horrors in the Ponar forest, and the tale of the survivors’ daring dash to freedom reached legendary status as it was told from generation to generation. However, there was no definitive proof of the tunnel’s existence—until now.
The Israel Antiquities Authority announced on Wednesday that in early June a team of archaeologists and mapmakers from the United States, Canada, Israel and Lithuania confirmed the existence of the hand-dug tunnel. The international researchers—led by Richard Freund, an archaeologist and professor of Jewish history at the University of Hartford, and Jon Seligman, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority—could not engage in traditional digging at Ponar because it would risk disturbing the burial site of 100,000 people, so the research team employed modern noninvasive tools such as ground penetrating radar and electrical resistivity tomography, a technology used primarily by geologists scanning for mineral and oil deposits. While a previous field study in 2004 located the tunnel’s mouth, the research team discovered the existence of the tunnel from entrance to exit.
The researchers, who are working with the PBS science series “NOVA” for a documentary that will air next year, also believed they located a previously unknown burial pit containing the ashes of as many as 10,000 victims, according to the New York Times. If confirmed, it would be the twelfth burial pit identified in Ponar.
“This project represents the new frontier for the study of archaeology and the Holocaust and the integration with national histories,” Freund said in a statement. “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.”
“This discovery is a heartwarming witness to the victory of hope over desperation,” said Dr. Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority, whose family originated in Lithuania. “The exposure of the tunnel enables us to present, not only the horrors of the Holocaust, but also the yearning for life.”
“The exciting and important discovery of the prisoners escape tunnel at Ponar is yet more proof negating the lies of the Holocaust deniers,” said Israeli Minister of Culture Miri Regev. “The success of modern technological developments, that have aided the Jewish people to reveal another heroic story the Nazis attempted to hide, profits all humanity.”