Using advanced imaging technology, researchers in Lithuania have uncovered a tunnel that Jewish prisoners used to escape Nazi extermination pits.
By doing so, they have provided physical evidence of a well-known tale of heroism during the Holocaust — known before only through the testimony of 11 Jews who escaped.
For the past 72 years, teams have been searching for the tunnel at the Ponar massacre site, located in a forest about 6 miles from Vilnius.
“They’ve used every single normal form of exploration but the use of this noninvasive technology allowed us to go into burial pits — the areas are filled with graves — and not desecrate the gravesites,” Richard Freund, a University of Hartford professor of Jewish history and a leader of the expedition team, tells The Two-Way.
“This is one of the great stories of courage during the Holocaust, that would not ever have been able to have been tracked but for the use of this geoscience,” he adds.
The extermination pits at the site hold the “remains of 100,000 people who were executed there by the Nazis, including 70,000 Jews shot and buried there from July 1941 through July 1944,” as the PBS series Nova reports in a statement.
The group of 80 prisoners who attempted to escape through the tunnel was known as the Burning Brigade. Freund explains, “They were from the local area and brought there for the most gruesome task of the entire Holocaust: These people were brought there, 80 Jews, to burn all the bodies that were there.” Russian troops were nearing the area in April 1944, he adds, and this was an attempt to destroy the evidence of Nazi crimes.
Freund says the Burning Brigade knew “in their heart of hearts, that they were going to be the last victims — unless they got out.”
Even reading about these Holocaust atrocities is still horrifying and nauseating lo these many decades later. The horror of this story is difficult to fathom but the way they went about finding physical evidence for a story that was already a heroic tale reads like a Hollywood script. Only 11 of the 80 made it to safety and, sadly, none of them are still alive.
Two of the escapees were interviewed for a documentary (“Shoah”) several years ago and described their experiences. Here is a transcript of that interview.
The PBS series “Nova” participated in the excavation and is producing a documentary about it.