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 5 and 9 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?”
Freund and his colleagues, working with the PBS science series NOVA for a documentary that will be broadcast next year, also uncovered another burial pit containing the ashes of perhaps 7,000 people. That would be the 12th burial pit identified in Ponar; officially known today as Paneriai.
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. Their bodies were dumped into the pits and buried.
“I call Ponar ground zero for the Holocaust,” Freund said. “For the first time we have systematic murder being done by the Nazis and their assistants.”
According to 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.
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. They forced a group of 80 Jews to exhume the bodies, burn them and bury the ashes.
For months, the Jewish prisoners dug up and burned bodies. One account tells of a man who identified his wife and two sisters among the corpses. The group knew that once their job was finished, they, too, would be executed, so they developed an escape plan.
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, they crawled through the 2-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.
Freund and his team used the information from survivors’ accounts to search for the tunnel.
Rather then excavate and disturb the remains, he and his team used two noninvasive tools: electrical resistivity tomography and ground penetrating radar.
Electrical resistivity tomography is like an MRI for the ground; it provides a clear picture of the subsurface. It uses electricity to identify stones, metal and clay as well as soil disturbances like those made by digging.
“We used the tool to pinpoint the locations where people most likely tunneled through,” said Paul Bauman a geophysicist with WorleyParsons, an Australian engineering company, who handled the tomography tool.
With the tool, they also found a previously unknown pit which they think is the largest ever discovered in the area. They estimate that it might have contained as many as 10,000 bodies.
The other tool, the ground penetrating radar, uses FM radio waves to scan about 10 feet under the surface. The team also used the ground-penetrating radar to search for the Great Synagogue of Vilnius, which was destroyed by the Nazis.
“The Holocaust is so overwhelming that we only really look at the end of the story — and that isn’t the whole story,” said Jon Seligman, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, who also led the team. “The whole story is the history of Jews who lived in this area for many, many centuries.”
Before World War II, Vilnius was a bustling Jewish center with more than 100,000 people. When the Soviets took over Lithuania, they erected an elementary school over the rubble of the city’s Great Synagogue. Using the radar, the team uncovered artifacts from the synagogue, including its ritual bath house.
“If we had never discovered the tunnel, people would have thought in another 20 years it was a myth, and they would have questioned: ‘What do we really know happened?’ ” said Freund. “This is a great story about the way that people overcame the worst possible condition, and still had this hope that they could get out.”