Inside the Discovery of a Holocaust Escape Tunnel
by Katherine Hensley
Historians have long sought to uncover a tunnel said to have been used to escape a Nazi extermination site in Ponar (known today as Paneriai), Lithuania. But traditional archaeological methods would have damaged the graves of the 100,000 people killed and buried there. But a team of archaeologists says they can now confirm a story that, until today, only survivor testimony had preserved: a tunnel, dug with spoons, that saved the lives of twelve Jews during the Holocaust.
The team’s success can be largely attributed to modern geoscience and innovative equipment, which allowed archaeologists to protect the burial sites while also uncovering a significant piece of history.
Dr. Richard Freund, director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies and Greenberg Professor of Jewish History at the University of Hartford, helped lead the team of archaeologists responsible for this tremendous find. We spoke with him about the methods behind the discovery and the finding’s implications for future generations of Holocaust study.
Tell us about Ponar and the story of the Burning Brigade.
Seventy thousand Jews were killed at Ponar, a forest area outside of Vilna in Lithuania. Six months before there was a “Final Solution” using extermination camps in Poland, locals and Nazi Einsatzgruppen were exterminating the Jews of Lithuania in pits with shootings. From July 1941 to July 1944, the shootings continued until the Soviets from the east displaced the Nazis from Lithuania. By December 1943, the Nazis decided the evidence of their crimes needed to be destroyed by burning the bodies. Every day, 76 men and four women, the “Burning Brigade,” were housed in a pit at Ponar and burned the bodies of their compatriots. One hundred thousand people buried in multiple pits were being burned; the Burning Brigade realized that they would be the last victims.
They planned an audacious escape. As they burned the bodies all day, they dug an escape tunnel all night. On the last night of Passover, April 15, 1944, the Burning Brigade escaped from the pit. Most were shot coming out into the forest, but 12 got out and 11 survived the war to tell the story. This escape is one of few well-documented acts of resistance and it is certainly the most horrific. They dug a 100-foot tunnel using spoons and their hands over 76 days. One issue for most scholars of the Holocaust is how well the memory of survivors’ matches with corroborative information. The tunnel corroboration from the burial pits surrounding it made the recovery near impossible until the present.
Many attempts have been made to uncover this tunnel. I understand that modern technology, like subsurface mapping, ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and electrical resistivity tomography (ERT), were key to finally succeeding. How exactly do these methods work—and how do they differ from previous attempts?
Traditional archaeology cannot always work in burial sites since it can randomly desecrate a burial while attempting to find it. The tunnel is in the midst of many burials. It was crucial to our success to know exactly where it was. Instead of looking from north to south, as previous researchers had done, we did a large east-to-west ERT line over the top of the area where we knew that it had extended from the pit.
We started with ERT because it can scan much deeper (up to 120 feet) and ERT software interpretation identifies specific elements in the sub-surface since each of these items react differently to the electrical charge that is sent into the earth. It is a technique used in gas and oil exploration, where the companies will not invest time and money in expensive exploration unless they know that there is indeed gas or oil. The process requires geophysicists and expensive equipment that is usually only affordable to the gas and oil industry. We have received the equipment as part of an arrangement that allows us to have it on loan for limited periods and specific targets. Each set-up and data collection can take four to five hours and can only be done if the geophysicists have a limited research area.
GPR that uses FM radio waves can identify major anomalies to approximately 15 feet in the sub-surface in a large and systematic grid that allows for 3D mapping of the area to be fully understood and, in our case, confirm that the tunnel moved in a clear direction from south to north. It is much less costly than the ERT equipment. We map the elements immediately onto a digital map with GPS coordinates that can be used to direct an excavation that can be done immediately after or years later.
We found the tunnel on June 8th and verified the direction for future generations to study and research.
Why was it so important to see the tunnel first-hand? What questions does it answer that survivor testimony couldn’t?
Testimonies constitute an important part of the research collected from the Holocaust. Memory and after-the-fact testimonies are crucial for details of what happened and where, but needs corroboration to make it as accurate as possible for scholars to understand and to thwart the efforts of Holocaust “deniers.”
The comparison between literary accounts and archaeological corroboration is one of the hallmarks of the modern period. From the search for Homer’s Troy to the search for the burial of Genghis Khan, literary accounts can provide important information about the ancient and modern worlds. The Holocaust needs the same type of treatment, and it is best to begin while there are survivors around to help direct the efforts of researchers. The scientific methodology to search for the corroboration helps a new generation of scholars to understand what happened and might help us understand recent genocide sites early on instead of waiting 70 years or more.
What role does geoscience have to play in future Holocaust research specifically, and in archaeological research in general? What does it mean to have these tools available to us?
I think that this technology will help Holocaust scholars to collaborate with scientists in the field. It will help us to integrate a generation of young people who are working on new technologies into the possibilities of recovering information on the Holocaust and not relegate it to libraries and museums. I have seen how this type of hands-on research helps to shape my own students’ understanding. This generation will internalize the significance of the Holocaust when they are investigating in the field, using these technologies, where these atrocities took place.
Have you been able to or will you be able to recover artifacts from the tunnel itself?
This is the next stage of work. This will require working closely with the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum and Lithuanian archaeologists and to plan how the tunnel, when opened, will be properly reconstructed for visitors to see one of the greatest acts of courage of the Holocaust.
How and why did you become involved in the efforts to uncover the escape tunnel?
Our original project, which started in 2015, used GPR to uncover the Great Synagogue, which was buried under an elementary school in downtown Vilnius. We were planning to come back in 2016 with our equipment and students when we decided to offer the Jewish community an opportunity to do other sites where non-invasive techniques could gather information without desecrating graves. One of the places they took us to in 2015 was Ponar, and we accepted the invitation to help them look for the escape tunnel and other burial pits. In the end, we uncovered one of the largest burial pits at the site, 72 feet long and 12 feet deep, which needs to be marked and properly protected.
Can you describe the moment when you finally uncovered the tunnel?
It was the single most emotional moment for all of us as we saw the computer screen. We immediately knew that this one discovery was changing, in one small way, the history of the understanding of the Holocaust.
The oral accounts of the 11 survivors were obviously extremely important for the historical accounting of Ponar and the Burning Brigade. Have you spoken to survivors over the course of your research?
They have all passed away. I am going to visit with a child of an escapee when I go to excavations in Israel. It was the testimonies that led us to Ponar. I go to pay my respects to the family, to deliver the report to them and to give them some closure about what we know that they might never have heard from their parent.
Tell us about the NOVA documentary in the works.
It is rare to have the number-one science program in the world with you when you are doing something that is essentially an experiment. We did not know if our theory would show results. When you have NOVA with you and they are able to film the discovery, it brings the public closer to the same emotional moment that we experienced.
What do you hope people will take away from this discovery?
A story of hope and courage from over 70 years ago can still inspire us today.
This interview has been edited and condensed.