Escape tunnel found at Holocaust burial site in Ponar, Lithuania

VILNIUS, Lithuania, June 29 (UPI) — A team of archaeologists has discovered a hand-dug escape tunnel at a Nazi extermination site in Lithuania.

The tunnel, found on June 8, appears to substantiate the stories of survivors from Ponar — an area used by the Nazis during the Holocaust to kill more than 100,000 people, including 70,000 Jews.

The survivors were prisoners who were given the task of digging up buried bodies and burning their remains. The 80 prisoners labored while chained together, scratching at the ground with their bare hands and spoons they found among the victims.

On the last night of Passover, April 14, 1944, they made their escape through the 100-foot tunnel.

Only 11 prisoners survived the escape.

Specific details of the tunnel and its exact location were unknown until a team of researchers made the discovery earlier this month.

Led by Richard Freund, a Judaic studies professor at the University of Hartford, and by Jon Seligman, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, the team used ground penetrating radar and electrical resistivity tomography to scan the ground for information so as not to disturb the remains buried at the site.

“When they ran the first test over the area outside of the pit where [the prisoners] started from, they immediately saw it on the imaging,” Freund said. “That was a moment.”

Ponar has long been an important site to Holocaust researchers.

“I call Ponar ground zero for the Holocaust,” Freund said. “For the first time we have systematic murder being done by the Nazis.”

Over four years, about 95 percent of Lithuanian Jews were killed — most of them from the nearby town of Vilnius.

Freund and team also used the imaging software to search Vilnius for other important sites and artifacts.

“The Holocaust is so overwhelming that we only really look at the end of the story — and that isn’t the whole story,” said Seligman. “The whole story is the history of Jews who lived in this area for many, many centuries.”

The discovery at Ponar will be showcased on the PBS NOVA series, which will air next year.

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