How Jewish prisoners escaped Nazis in Lithuania via secret tunnel

Captives painstakingly dug their way out of Ponar forest death pits by hand, 15 managed to flee though hidden passage

Researchers prepare to scan a mass grave  outside Vilnius, Lithuania. (Ezra Wolfinger, NOVA)
Researchers prepare to scan a mass grave outside Vilnius, Lithuania. (Ezra Wolfinger, NOVA)

On the night of April 15, 1944, a group of 40 Jewish prisoners — who were being held in captivity in Lithuania, forced by Nazis to cover up the massacre of some 100,000 Jews in a forest near Vilnius — escaped through a 100-foot underground tunnel they had dug at night, using only spoons and their hands. Many of the escapees were shot dead by guards, but 15 got away.

Thanks to advances in archaeological technology, the tunnel from that miraculous, tragic story has been discovered, as announced by the Israel Antiquities Authority on Wednesday.

The popular PBS science show “Nova” will air a documentary on the discovery next year.

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.

A Secret Escape Tunnel from the Holocaust — Uncovered

During the Holocaust, Jewish Lithuanian prisoners dug a tunnel to escape the Nazis. Now, that tunnel has been discovered.

Posted by JTA News on Thursday, June 30, 2016

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.”

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

The memorial to the Holocaust victims at Ponar forest in Lithuania (Times of Israel)
The memorial to the Holocaust victims at Ponar forest in Lithuania (Times of Israel)

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.

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 — 40 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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