Israeli Archaeologist Rediscovers Escape Tunnel at Site of Holocaust Massacre

Technology used in the oil industry helps find the tunnel at the site where the Nazis killed around 100,000 people, 70,000 of them Jews.

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The site of the burning pit at Ponar, Lithuania, during the Holocaust, September 2, 2010.
The site of the burning pit at Ponar, Lithuania, during the Holocaust, September 2, 2010. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Gregor Jamroski

A tunnel dug by Jewish prisoners to escape their Nazi captors in Lithuania’s Ponar woods has been rediscovered by an Israeli archaeologist using ground-penetrating scanning technology.

At Ponar known as Ponary in Polish and Paneriai in Lithuanian the Nazis killed around 100,00 people, of whom 70,000 were Jews from in an around Vilna (Wilno, Vilnius). But as the Germans retreated from the Soviet Army in 1943, the Nazis sought to cover up their crimes.

At Ponar, this task was assigned to 80 prisoners from the Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig (Gdansk). They were to open the mass graves, take out the corpses, pile them onto pyres, add fuel and burn them. They thus were known informally as the Burning Brigade.

The entire time their legs were shackled and they knew they would be killed next if they did not escape. For three months they dug a tunnel around 35 meters (38 yards) long but only 60 centimeters (24 inches) wide and about 40 centimeters high. They used  spoons and their hands. The tunnel was shored up using planks of wood.

The prisoners made their escape on the night of April 15, 1944, after cutting their shackles with a nail file. The guards noticed, however, and only 11 reached partisan forces and survived the war.

One survivor, Mordechai Zeidel, lit a torch for Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2005. He told how the bodies had been placed, head to head and foot to foot.

“There was a crematorium for about 3,000 victims; then they would be set on fire, and it was terrible. I can see the flames. Only God knows the condition we were in,” Zeidel said. “After a month, we decided to escape.” Those who made it out joined partisan units to help liberate Vilna.

The tunnel’s location had been forgotten, and attempts to find it over the years failed. But the tunnel was found using a technique used in mineral and oil exploration known as electrical resistivity tomography.

The project was a collaboration of Dr. Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Prof. Richard Freund of the University of Hartford, Paul Bauman of consulting firm Advisian of Calgary, Canada, and the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum.

“As an Israeli whose family originated in Lithuania, I was reduced to tears on the discovery of the escape tunnel at Ponar,” Seligman said.

“This discovery is heartwarming testimony to the victory of hope over desperation. The uncovering of the tunnel lets us show not only the horrors of the Holocaust but also the yearning for life.”

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