The Israel Antiquities Authority, an Israeli governmental research team dedicated to the excavation and conservation of worldwide Jewry, recently uncovered an incredible if excruciating piece of Holocaust history near Vilnius, Lithuania: an escape tunnel.
According to JTA, the Antiquities Authority, along with the help of the University of Hartford, geophysicists from global advisory firm Advisian, the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum, and PBS, discovered a tunnel used by Lithuanian Jews to escape the Ponar forest massacre, when 100,000 people—70,000 of whom were Jews—were shot and thrown into pits over a period of four years.
As the Red Army approached in 1943, remaining Nazi units forced prisoners from the Stutthoff concentration camp to begin digging up the corpses and burn them, in order to erase evidence of the atrocities. Knowing that they would be killed after completing their gruesome task, the prisoners began to devise a plan to escape.
At night the prisoners, whose legs were shackled, were held in a deep pit previously used for the execution of Vilnius Jews. During the day they worked to hide the mass graves and burn the corpses.
Some of the workers decided to escape by digging a tunnel from the pit that was their prison. For three months they dug using only spoons and their hands.
On the night of April, 15, 1944, the prisoners cut their leg shackles with a nail file, and 40 of them crawled through the narrow tunnel. They were quickly discovered by the guards and many were shot. Some 15 managed to cut the fence of the camp and escape into the forest. Eleven reached the partisan forces and survived the war.
The existence of the tunnel has been known to researchers for years, but years of searching had proved fruitless. With its discovery, PBS’s series Nova is creating a documentary that’s slated to air in 2017. A preview can be watched here.
Dr. Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who’s leading the archaeological dig with University of Hartford Professor of Jewish History Richard Freund, said: “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.”
Jesse Bernstein is a former Intern at Tablet.