Archaeologists Discover Tunnel Dug By Jews To Escape Nazis In Lithuania

Jun 30, 2016
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An international team of scientists has been working at the scene of one of the most horrific massacres of the Holocaust, a place where more than 70,000 Jews were murdered during the second world war. The scientists found some of the mass graves that held the victims. They also discovered a powerful symbol of resistance. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Vilnius, Lithuania.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: The site is called Ponar, a forested area not far from Vilnius. It has monuments to those who were slaughtered here, but the story of what happened is far from complete. One of the team leaders, Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority, talks about what is known.

JON SELIGMAN: The Nazis arrived in Vilna in June of 1941. Within just a few weeks, by July, they were already getting people off the street, bringing them here and shooting them. But in a very, very few days of that happening, they'd organized a group of Lithuanian volunteers from the rifle association - 150 men who came out here, and they volunteered to shoot the Jews of Vilna, a Jewish population which at that time was 35 percent of the population of the city.

FLINTOFF: Seligman says that population represented hundreds of years of vibrant Jewish culture in Vilnius. The Nazis tried to hide the evidence of their crimes by burning the corpses of their victims. That gruesome job was forced on a group of 80 slave laborers, Jews who were held captive in a stone pit. Against all odds, some of them managed to escape.

RICHARD FREUND: And but for the escape, we probably wouldn't have all the details of really what went on here.

FLINTOFF: Richard Freund, a professor of Jewish history at the University of Hartford, explains.

FREUND: Those people had to go every day and burn the bodies - they had an enormous amount of contact with the people who were buried here. That's the reason why this is not only about the escape. It's also about a study of the Holocaust. Something like this tells us just how evil the evil was.

FLINTOFF: Freund says that the laborers knew that when the last corpse was burned they too would be killed. Each night for 76 nights, they dug an escape tunnel using spoons and their bare hands. Of the group that eventually got out, only 11 survived, but they were able to tell their stories.

For decades, the location of that tunnel remained a mystery. Because the area is a mass burial ground, researchers were unable to dig in the area for fear of desecrating graves. Harry Jol, a geoscientist from the University of Wisconsin, says the team used ground-penetrating radar and other imaging technologies.

HARRY JOL: And we're trying to use noninvasive, nondestructive techniques. And we can pick up anomalies or sometimes we call archaeological features that are basically round. And what that's - is - we interpret as is the tunnels in the subsurface.

FLINTOFF: The team members hope that eventually some part of the tunnel can be excavated to show visitors what they call the victory of hope over desperation. Again, Richard Freund.

FREUND: You would like to know what the secret of the human spirit is that allowed these people to decide to do this at the last moments of courage.

FLINTOFF: The team members and the science behind their discovery will be featured in a documentary on the PBS series "Nova" next year. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Vilnius. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.