In a quiet forest in Lithuania, some of the most harrowing events of the 20th century took place. Now, 70 years later, high-tech imaging techniques have helped shine a light onto the dark – yet profoundly inspirational – story of what took place there.
An international team of archaeologists has uncovered a 35-meter (115-foot) long tunnel that Jewish prisoners secretly dug with spoons and their bare hands to escape a Nazi massacre site in Lithuania's Ponar forest, a site where 100,000 people had been killed.
Researchers from Israel, Lithuania, Canada, and the US used electrical resistivity tomography to avoid disturbing the bodies in the mass graves, an imaging technique commonly used in mineral and oil exploration that shows up changes in electrical properties underground. Their imaging showed that a tunnel started in a pit, used to imprison the captives, and led to an open space in the forest.
“To find a little glimmer of hope within the dark hole of Ponar is very important as humans. The tunnel shows that even when the time was so black, there was yearning for life within that,” Jon Seligman, an archaeologist with Israel’s antiquities authority who participated in the expedition, told Associated Press.
Ponar forest, known today as Paneriai, is found 10 kilometers (6 miles) away from the city center of Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital city. The Nazis invaded Lithuania in 1941, freeing them from the repressive Soviet regime that had occupied them just one year previous. While the invasion was initially welcomed, it quickly turned sour with the establishment of Jewish ghettos and mass executions. Ponar forest was chosen as an execution site because of its seclusion, its proximity to Vilnius, and its railway station.
In total, around 100,000 people were slaughtered, including Russian prisoners of war, Polish intellectuals, communists, and over 70,000 Jewish people. That's 95 percent of Lithuania's Jewish population.
However, Soviet troops began to advance on the area once again in 1943. In a desperate bid to cover the traces of their mass killings, the Nazis brought 80 Jewish and Soviet prisoners to Ponar forest from the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland. Under the watch of armed guards, with their legs shackled, the prisoners were forced to dig up the mass graves and burn the human remains.
This group of people, known as the “Burning Brigade”, were forced to sleep in one of the pits used for the killings. Over a period of three months, some of them secretly dug an underground tunnel from this pit using spoons and their bare hands. On April 15, 1944, the final night of Passover, 40 of the prisoners filed off their chains and fled down the tunnel. The majority were caught and subsequently killed by the Nazi guards. However, 11 managed to escape the forest and reach partisan forces, to whom they told their story.
We only know about the vast majority of the horrors from Ponar forest thanks to these 11 people and their unimaginably courageous escape plan.
"As an Israeli whose family originated in Lithuania, I was reduced to tears on the discovery of the escape tunnel at Ponar," Seligman said in a statement. "The exposure of the tunnel enables us to present, not only the horrors of the Holocaust, but also the yearning for life."
Ponary executions in July 1941. Unknown/Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain