New tech reveals forgotten Holocaust escape tunnel in Lithuania
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New tech reveals forgotten Holocaust escape tunnel in Lithuania

Researchers uncover hidden passage where 80 Jewish prisoners painstakingly dug their way out of the Ponar forest death pits by hand

Researchers prepare to scan the mass grave in the Ponar forest, outside Vilnius, Lithuania. (Ezra Wolfinger, NOVA)
Researchers prepare to scan the mass grave in the Ponar forest, outside Vilnius, Lithuania. (Ezra Wolfinger, NOVA)

An international research team has located a forgotten tunnel in Lithuania dug by Jewish prisoners trying to escape their Nazi captors during World War II, the Israel Antiquities Authority said Wednesday.

A team of archaeologists and mapmakers from Israel, the US, Canada and Lithuania used mineral and oil exploration scanning technology to pinpoint the tunnel, the authority said in a statement Wednesday.

The 35-meter (115-foot) tunnel is located in the Ponar forest, known today as Paneriai, where the Nazis killed 100,000 people – mostly Jews – during the Holocaust.

Israeli researcher Dr. Jon Seligman, whose family originated from Lithuania, said the discovery of the Ponar tunnel “reduced him to tears.”

“This is a heartwarming testimony to the victory of hope over despair,” he said according to the IAA statement. “The discovery of the tunnel allows us to not only expose the horrors of the Holocaust, but also the hope for life.”

An ERT scan of the escape tunnel uncovered in the Ponar forest, outside Vilnus, Lithuania. (Ezra Wolfinger, NOVA)
An ERT scan of the escape tunnel uncovered in the Ponar forest, outside Vilnus, Lithuania. (Ezra Wolfinger, NOVA)

Seligman led the team of researchers together with US Jewish History Professor Richard Freund of the University of Hartford in Connecticut.

Thanks to advances in archaeological technology — namely ground penetrating radar and electrical resistivity tomography — Freund said his team was able to examine the site without disturbing the remains of the some 100,000 people buried there.

“All these technologies allow people to gain information about an era — the Holocaust era — without having to desecrate a burial site,” Freund told the PBS television channel, which will air a documentary on the find in 2017.

From 1941 to 1944, tens of thousands of Jews, Poles and Russian prisoners of war were murdered by German and Lithuanian SS officers.

As the Red Army advanced on Nazi-occupied Europe in 1943, German forces attempted to cover up evidence of their crimes, and brought 80 Jewish inmates from the nearby Stutthof concentration camp to burn bodies dumped in the forest.

Prof. Richard Freund discusses ERT results with his team in the Ponar forest, outside Vilnius, Lithuania. (Ezra Wolfinger, NOVA)
Prof. Richard Freund discusses ERT results with his team in the Ponar forest, outside Vilnius, Lithuania. (Ezra Wolfinger, NOVA)

During the months-long work, the prisoners, chained to one another, secretly dug the underground tunnel out of a pit they were kept in.

On the last night of Passover — April 14, 1944 — forty prisoners escaped through the tunnel. Many were shot, but 11 reached partisan forces and survived.

The testimony of the surviving prisoners helped exposing the scope of the crimes committed by Nazi forces in the area.

AP contributed to this report.

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