A tunnel has been discovered beneath a Lithuanian camp that served as a dumping site for bodies of Jewish prisoners during the Holocaust.
The tunnel is 100 feet long and was dug with spoons found on the bodies that captives were forced to exhume. The passageway is between five and nine feet below the surface.
— The New York Times (@nytimes) June 29, 2016
The Israel Antiquities Authority announced Wednesday that the crawl space was found by an international team including archaeologists and mapmakers from Israel, the U.S., Canada and Lithuania. They used mineral and oil exploration scanning technology to pinpoint the tunnel, which is beneath the camp in the Ponar forest about 10 kilometers from Vilnius, Lithuania.
The prisoners dug for 76 nights “using their hands, spoons and improvised tools to make the tunnel,” said Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority, according to USA Today.
Seligman added that the discovery was an emotional event.
“As an Israeli whose family originated in Lithuania, I was reduced to tears on the discovery of the escape tunnel at Ponar.
“This discovery is a heartwarming witness to the victory of hope over desperation. The exposure of the tunnel enables us to present, not only the horrors of the Holocaust, but also the yearning for life.”
Since 1944, the Ponar site, officially known today as Paneriai, has held the remains of 100,000 people executed by the Nazis, including 70,000 Jews shot and buried from July, 1941, through July, 1944.
Tens of thousands of Jewish prisoners from the nearby city of Vilnius, known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, were marched before Nazi gunmen and murdered in groups of ten, the New York Times said.
The bodies were thrown into 12 burial pits at the site.
These shootings occurred about six months before Nazis began using gas chambers to exterminate prisoners en masse.
As the war began to draw to a close in 1943 and the Soviets were approaching a Lithuanian takeover, the Nazis decided they had better destroy the evidence of their massive slaughter at Ponar.
A group of 80 Jews were elected to dig up the bodies, burn them and bury the ashes. At the time, the group was called the Leichenkommando, or “corpse unit,” but in the years that followed they were known as the Burning Brigade.
One man discovered the bodies of his wife and daughter during the exhumation, the report said.
On April 15, 1944, the last night of Passover, in the darkest part of the night, one by one the brigade climbed into the two-foot-square tunnel entrance and crawled the hundred feet to emerge in the forest.
Guards were alerted by a noise and they chased the prisoners down with dogs. Of the 80 who made it through the tunnel, 12 managed to escape. Eleven of them survived the war and went on to tell their stories.
A previous attempt made by a different team in 2004 to find the Ponar tunnel had only located its mouth. But the new finding traces the tunnel from entrance to exit, providing evidence to support survivor accounts of their efforts to escape their horrific sentence.
Richard Freund, an archaeologist from the University of Hartford in Connecticut and one of the team leaders, said thanks to the technology, which is “like an MRI for the ground,” they could now confirm the number of burial pits without digging or disturbing the site.
“I call Ponar ground zero for the Holocaust. For the first time we have systematic murder being done by the Nazis and their assistants.
“What we were able to do was not only solve one of the greatest mysteries and escape stories of the Holocaust.”
[Image via Jan S/Shutterstock]