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X-Ray Vision Archaeology Reveals Holocaust Escape Tunnel

In three years during the Holocaust, 95% of Lithuanian Jews were killed. But hidden within this tragedy is a story of hope and courage that archeologists are just now bringing to light.

ByJulia DavisNOVA NextNOVA Next
The pit where the tunnel began.

Seventy years ago, Vilnius, Lithuania, was known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania—a bustling town home to more than 100,000 Jews at its peak. But then it all vanished.

In three years during the Holocaust, 95% of Lithuanian Jews were killed. But hidden within this tragedy is a story of hope and courage that archeologists are just now bringing to light.

Jews from the Vilnius Ghetto were executed in a pit in the Ponary woods between 1941, when this photo was taken, and 1944.

On June 8, a team led by Richard Freund, a Judaic studies professor at the University of Hartford, and Jon Seligman, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, discovered the existence of an escape tunnel at Ponar, just outside of Vilnius. The tunnel had been rumored in oral histories kept alive by escapees, their descendants, and other Lithuanian Jews from that era, including Freund’s great-grandfather, who came from Vilnius.

On the last night of Passover, April 14, 1944, 80 Jews began their escape from the pit where they were being held prisoner through a 100-foot tunnel that had been painstakingly dug by hand.

Digging in the dark of night, chained to one another, the prisoners had secretly scratched at the earth for three months before their daring escape. Of the 80 prisoners who attempted the getaway, only 11 survived. But they told their stories, and the tunnel gained legendary status among the people of Vilnius.

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For decades, the exact location of the tunnel remained a mystery, and archaeologists couldn’t dig at the site for risk of disturbing more than the 100,000 remains buried at Ponar.

However, advances in archeological technology allowed Freund and his team to study the site using noninvasive techniques, including ground penetrating radar (GPR) and electrical resistivity tomography (ERT). Upon turning on their equipment, they discovered the escape tunnel almost immediately.

Richard Freund studies the ERT data that first revealed evidence of the tunnel.

“When they ran the first test over the area leading outside of the pit where [the prisoners] started from, they immediately saw it on the imaging.” Freund said. “There was nothing but sand, and the tunnel lit up. That was a moment.”

GPR works similar to traditional radar, but instead of sending radio waves through the air, it broadcasts them into the ground. The resulting charts illustrate what lies below without disturbing the site, and archaeologists can see the results immediately, said Dean Goodman, a geophysicist at GPR-Slice Software, a company that specializes in GPR software. “We’re able to collect a lot of data really quickly and almost see the results real time. As you’re collecting the antenna over ground, you actually get a 2D profile of the swath of ground you’re going over.”

The other technique, ERT, is usually used by geologists working in the oil and gas industry, not archaeologists. ERT works by sending a current into the ground and measuring the electrical resistance of the various substrates, producing a map of what lies below.

Richard Freund and his collaborators discuss which area of the site to study next.

GPR and ERT enable archaeologists to peer into sites that were previously off limits because they couldn’t be disturbed.

“All these technologies allow people to gain information about an era—the Holocaust era—without having to desecrate a burial site,” Freund said.

Freund is working with the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum and the Tolerance Center of Lithuania to create an exhibit so that visitors from around the world can hear the story of the courageous Jews that dug their way out of the death pits.

Freund said it will be a refreshingly different piece of Holocaust history—“a story about life instead of death.”

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Photo credits: Chronicles of the Vilna Ghetto , Juliux/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA) , Ezra Wolfinger/WGBH

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