A Jewish tunnel used by prisoners to escape the Nazi extermination pits in World War II has been found by a team of international researchers. The team was able to pinpoint the location of the legendary tunnel in Lithuania by using advanced imaging technology.
The Israel Antiquities Authority announced on Wednesday that the Jewish tunnel being found is physical evidence of a well-known tale of heroism during the Holocaust.
The entrance to the tunnel was first discovered back in 2004 six miles from Vilnius and at the Ponar massacre site. It has taken researchers over 10 years to find the entire Jewish escape tunnel as researchers were trying not to destroy any part of the tunnel, disturb human remains, or damage the site according to Richard Freund, a University of Hartford professor of Jewish history and a leader of the expedition team.
“They’ve used every single normal form of exploration but the use of this noninvasive technology allowed us to go into burial pits — the areas are filled with graves — and not desecrate the grave sites,” he said.
“This is one of the great stories of courage during the Holocaust that would not ever have been able to have been tracked but for the use of this geoscience.”
The story of the 112-foot-long tunnel only came to light when two of the 11 Jews who escaped the death camps retold their tale for a documentary. The prisoners were dubbed the Burning Brigade and they lived in fear that once their task was complete, they too would be killed. The 11 prisoners who managed to get through the tunnel and escape into the forest reached partisan forces and survived the war.
The Jewish escape tunnel took over three months to dig and was finally used on April 15, 1944. In the middle of the night, 40 prisoners filed off their chains and fled through the narrow escape tunnel, only 11 made it out the other side alive.
In 1979, two of the Ponar tunnel survivors, Motke Zaidel and Itzak Dugin, described the painstaking, dangerous work of digging the long escape tunnel for a documentary, and explained what it felt like to be running out of air.
“I started to work and I still hadn’t quite finished when there were already twenty people in the tunnel and I felt that I really could no longer, I didn’t have any more air to breathe. I had a bar of iron in my hand and I tried, I attempted to make holes in the surface of the soil and suddenly I made a hole, two holes, and finally I had air. It was then that we cut the electricity, there was electricity inside the tunnel, and when we took off… when we removed the chains and I opened the hole, I widened it and I had open air. When I stuck my head out, I already saw the sky, the stars, but I also saw a group of German soldiers who looked precisely in the direction of our tunnel.”
Jon Seligman, an archaeologist with Israel’s antiquities authority, was part of the expedition and said the tunnel says a lot about the people who escaped.
“To find a little glimmer of hope within the dark hole of Ponar is very important as humans. The tunnel shows that even when the time was so black, there was yearning for life within that,” he said.
Isaac Dogim is credited as organizing the great tunnel escape and was pushed to do so after piling decomposing corpses and recognizing members of his own family, and his wife among the dead.
The Jewish tunnel between Ponar forest, known today as Paneriai, led to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. It is the site where 100,000 people, including 70,000 Jews, were killed and thrown into pits during Nazi occupation, according to CNN.
The tunnel being found will be the subject of a forthcoming documentary by the science series NOVA, premiering in the U.S. next year. The team is now working towards excavating the site to uncover the history of Jewish life in Vilnius.
“There were 500 years of creativity, a vibrant community,” said Seligman.
“We can’t just look at the Holocaust.”
[Photo by Ezra Wolfinger/AP]