Between September 1943 and April 1944, Holocaust prisoners in the morbidly named Burning Brigade were tasked with destroying the evidence of the genocide of their own people.
Every day, the roughly 80 prisoners, chained at the ankles and at the waist, would exhume the contents of the mass graves in the Ponar forest of Lithuania in order to burn the bodies — 68,000 corpses in total, according to prisoner Szloma Gol, who has said that some prisoners were forced to count the bodies. They worked through grief, as several prisoners discovered the bodies of their own loved ones in the graves. They worked through sickness, as they’d be killed if they were ill for too long. And, of course, they worked through pain, as guards prodded them, beat them and even shot some of them in order to instill terror, according to the Holocaust Education and Archive Research Team.
Eventually, a sympathetic guard confirmed their suspicions: After the job was done, they, too, were to be shot and incinerated.
But even before they knew their fates, the prisoners had hatched an escape plan. Led by Isaac Dogim, who had been forced to dig up and burn the bodies of his wife and sisters, the brigade used the guise of nightfall to dig a 28 inch by 26 inch tunnel, designed by a civil engineer among the prisoners named Yudi Farber, according to research compiled for a NOVA documentary that will air on PBS next year.
It took 76 nights, as most prisoners used their hands or spoons to do the digging, but on April 15, 1944 — the last night of Passover — the brigade attempted its escape through the 115-foot tunnel.
Eleven prisoners succeeded and lived to tell the tale.
This story shines as a beacon of bravery against the murderous backdrop of the 100,000 people who perished in Ponar and Vilnius, the nearby capital city that was once known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania. Until now, no one was sure where the tunnel was. An attempt to find it in 2004 brought about only the discovery of its mouth, located in the pit where the prisoners slept.
But on June 8, researchers found the long lost tunnel entirely through noninvasive methods.
“This project represents the new frontier for the study of archaeology and the Holocaust and the integration with national histories,” said Richard Freund, an archaeologist at the University of Hartford and a leader of the team of researchers, in a NOVA press release. “Geoscience will allow testimonies of survivors — like the account of the escape through the tunnel — and many events of the Holocaust to be researched and understood in new ways for generations to come.”
When they began the search in 2015, the team — led by Freund and Jon Seligman, also an archaeologist, along with geoscientists and a cartographer — knew that they didn’t want to do any physical digging yet, so as to avoid disturbing or unearthing the remains of the dead. Instead, they used electrical resistivity tomography to locate the tunnel and ground penetrating radar to determine its contours and shape.
ERT is like an MRI for the ground, using electricity to map out the subsurface. The tool also helped the team discover yet another pit where as many as 10,000 bodies were buried, making it one of the largest, if not the largest, pit in the area.
“We used the tool to pinpoint the locations where people most likely tunneled through,” Paul Bauman, the geophysicist who handled the tomography tool, told the New York Times. “We’re highly confident we’ve identified exactly where the tunnel is.”
Meanwhile, the GPR sends FM radio waves into the ground, where they bounce off archaeological features and give researchers a better sense of what the tunnel looked like. According to Smithsonian.com, the technologies found that there are still bodies in the tunnels.
They’re clutching the spoons that they used to dig the tunnel.
The GPR also helped unearth another lost structure: Vilnius’s Great Synagogue. The Times reports that, when the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania, it built a school on top of the synagogue’s remains. And yet, the radar was able to identify pieces of the synagogue, including its ritual bath house.
The PBS science series NOVA, which has been involved with the project since it began last year, will air a full-length documentary on the discovery and the story behind it in 2017.
In interviews, members of the research team expressed admiration for the perseverance and bravery of the brigade. Freund said to the Times that, had the tunnel not been found, people might have wondered years from now whether the story was fact or fiction.
“To find a little glimmer of hope within the dark hole of Ponar is very important as humans,” Seligman, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, told the Associated Press. “The tunnel shows that even when the time was so black, there was yearning for life within that.”