The Ponar Forest outside the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius was an epicenter of Jewish life before World War II, but the site is now known as a Holocaust memorial to the 100,000 people–70,000 of them Jewish–killed and dumped into this mass gravesite. But recently, a team of researchers, archeologists, and mapmakers found something new–a forgotten tunnel that prisoners dug by hand to attempt an escape from Nazi extermination.
The international team, led by University of Hartford in Connecticut and including researchers from Canada, Israel, and Lithuania, found the tunnel without digging, instead using non-invasive methods of radar and the oil exploration technique of electric resistivity tomography to find the 100-foot-long tunnel about nine feet below the surface. The exact location of the tunnel had been lost since the war. In 2004, an excavation team located the tunnel opening, but it was left unmarked and largely forgotten until now. The team’s new finding corroborates survivor stories of harrowing escape efforts.
Prisoners from the nearby Stutthof concentration camp were labeled as the “Burning Brigade” because they were forced to perform the horrific task of burning bodies to conceal Nazi mass murder from the advancing Soviet military. Survivors recount the forced burning of thousands upon thousands of bodies. Ponar offers the earliest evidence of Nazi systematic murder before the advent of gas chambers. One survivor’s account says “we had pokers that we had to stick into the bodies, to pull them up. The crematorium held about 3000 bodies, and we’d light it up. It was horrific.” Another survivor’s account tells the chilling tale of identifying his own wife and two sisters among the bodies.
After the prisoners cleared the bodies from the pits, they were forced to live there. Knowing they would eventually all be killed, a group of forty brigade members slowly dug a tunnel from their holding pit over a period of three months, using their hands and spoons recovered from the dead bodies, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority. One night in April 1944, they attempted escape, but guards heard the noise, and although most were shot, twelve did escape and survive.
Archeologist Jon Seligman, of the Israel Antiquities Authority, says he was reduced to tears upon discovering the tunnel. “As an Israeli whose family originated in Lithuania, this discovery is a heartwarming witness to the victory of hope over desperation. The tunnel shows that even when the time was so black, there was yearning for life within that,” he told Associated Press.
A 2017 NOVA film will shed more light on this dark chapter of World War II history.