History

Tunnel Used by Jews to Escape Nazis Found

The 115-foot long passageway lies 5-9 feet below the surface of a Lithuanian forest.

An international research team has found a tunnel dug up by Jewish prisoners as they tried to escape a Nazi death camp in Lithuania, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced Wednesday.

The tunnel was traced from entrance to exit using a geophysical technique employed in mineral and oil exploration.

The finding "is yet more proof negating the lies of the Holocaust deniers," Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev said.

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The team of researchers from Israel, the United States, Canada and Lithuania found the 115-foot long passageway five to nine feet below the surface of the Ponar Forest, known today as Paneriai.

In this resort area five miles from Vilna, about 100,000 people, mostly Jews, were executed by the Nazis, their bodies dumped into pits.

In 1943, as the Russian Red Army advanced on Nazi positions on the eastern front, a special Nazi unit was formed with the task of covering up the massacre. In Ponar the work was assigned to a group of 80 prisoners from the Stutthof concentration camp.

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"At night the prisoners were held in a deep pit, previously used for the execution of Vilna's Jews, while during the day they worked to dig the mass graves, pile up the corpses on logs cut from the forest, cover them with fuel and incinerate them," the IAA said.

Bound in chains, the prisoners were fully aware that as they finished their horrendous task, they too would be murdered.

A secret group was then organized among them. For three months they dug a tunnel more than 100 feet in length, using only spoons and their bare hands. On the night of the April 15, 1944, the escape was made.

After cutting their leg shackles with a nail file, 40 prisoners crawled through the narrow passageway, only to be discovered and shot by the Nazi guards.

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Only 15 managed to get away into the forest, and of these 11 reached the Allied forces and survived the war.

A monument was erected after the war to the memory of the victims, but the exact location of the tunnel remained unknown until now.

"This discovery is a heartwarming witness to the victory of hope over desperation," IAA archaeologist Jon Seligman said.

"The exposure of the tunnel enables us to present, not only the horrors of the Holocaust, but also the yearning for life," he added.