Ponar, a site in Lithuania used by the Nazis as a massacre site with bodies being dumped and burned in massive burial pits is the site of the latest discovery. A number of Holocaust survivors claimed to have survived by digging a tunnel out of one of the pits. However, their stories were never verified. Until now.
A team of archaeologists and mapmakers say they have uncovered a forgotten tunnel that 80 Jews dug largely by hand as they tried to escape from a Nazi extermination site in Lithuania about 70 years ago.
The Lithuanian site, Ponar, holds mass burial pits and graves where up to 100,000 people were killed and their bodies dumped or burned during the Holocaust.
Using radar and radio waves to scan beneath the ground, the researchers found the tunnel, a 100-foot passageway between five and nine feet below the surface, the team announced on Wednesday.
A previous attempt made by a different team in 2004 to find the underground structure had only located its mouth, which was subsequently left unmarked. The new finding traces the tunnel from entrance to exit and provides evidence to support survivor accounts of the harrowing effort to escape the holding pit.
“What we were able to do was not only solve one of the greatest mysteries and escape stories of the Holocaust,” said Richard Freund, an archaeologist from the University of Hartford in Connecticut and one of the team leaders. “We were also able to unravel one of the biggest problems they have with a site like this: How many burial pits are there?”
The story of the area is horrid:
From 1941 until 1944, tens of thousands of Jews from the nearby city of Vilnius, known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, were brought to Ponar and shot at close range. Their bodies were dumped into the pits and buried.
“I call Ponar ground zero for the Holocaust,” Dr. Freund said. “For the first time we have systematic murder being done by the Nazis and their assistants.” According to Dr. Freund, the events at the site took place about six months before the Nazis started using gas chambers elsewhere for their extermination plans.
An estimated 100,000 people, including 70,000 Jews, died at Ponar. Over four years, about 150 Lithuanian collaborators killed the prisoners — usually in groups of about 10. In 1943 when it became clear the Soviets were going to take over Lithuania, the Nazis began to cover up the evidence of the mass killings.
The story of the escape however, is fascinating:
About half of the group spent 76 days digging a tunnel in their holding pit by hand and with spoons they found among the bodies. On April 15, 1944 — the last night of Passover when they knew the night would be darkest — the brigade crawled through the two-foot-square tunnel entrance and through to the forest.
The noise alerted the guards, who pursued the prisoners with guns and dogs. Of the 80, 12 managed to escape; 11 of them survived the war and went on to tell their stories, according to the researchers.
The story will be told as part of a documentary by NOVA on PBS that will be broadcast next year.
This is pretty amazing and these stories need to continue to be told.
Share this with others. It’s been 70 years since World War II ended and they’re still finding Nazi horrors.