Details emerged recently regarding the secret tunnel found in a small Holocaust camp area at Ponary, near Vilnius, now the capital of Lithuania. This was the site where 100,000 were brutally killed in the woods—a mixture of Jews, Poles, and Russians, lined up in pits and then shot and buried in enormous piles, and then years later more were kept there alive in chains, in a large pit, to dispose of the bodies. Upon hurrying to cover up war crimes as the Russians advanced stealthily, the Nazis suddenly needed all the buried dead to be dug up and burned en masse. To take care of this nightmarish job they sent over 80 Jewish prisoners who had been forced to become part of what was known as the ‘Burning Brigade,’ originating from the Stutthof concentration camp in German-occupied Poland.
In hearing this latest story, I was struck first of all, as always, with the horror that humans could treat other humans in such a diabolical manner, imprisoning them, murdering them, burying them in pits, throwing their dead bodies on piles and burning them like trash, not to mention forcing the other prisoners to tend to their own dead. It’s certainly dark subject matter, and although many of the people at all of the camps may have endured much worse, what struck me even further was the bleak proposition of those digging a tunnel with no real tools—only spoons they took from the dead strewn about as they set to burning them, as well as the use of their fingernails. As late winter of 1944 turned to spring, the prisoners were intently clawing at the cold hard earth secretly, and they were indeed achieving their goal in underground construction.
Fast forward decades later into a new century, and scientists have finally found their tunnel at Ponary after years of searching, achieving success with the help advanced 3D technology. Starting with electric resistivity tomography, archaeologists were able to find the tunnel, which stretches all the way to the fence the prisoners needed to reach in order to escape to hopeful safety with partisan forces. The project was led by Dr. Jon Seligman, a researcher with the Israel Antiquities Authority who has been leading the work to search for the escape tunnel.
This type of technology is generally not used for an application of this sort, but rather in the oil and gas industry. Once a picture of underground structures is created through measuring electrical resistance, it can be used to put together into a 3D image, and in looking at the images, you can see that the blue areas indicate earth, whereas the lighter blue, green, and red colors show where the tunnel is.
Only 40 people attempted to escape at all through the tunnel, with a mere 15 making it to the fence they needed to cut through for freedom. Of the 15 who did make it through the fence, 11 were able to reach safety and lived. See the video below for a compelling account by one of the survivors, Mordechai Zeidel, describing what it was like having to burn the dead, seeing their own friends and relatives among the many tens of thousands who had been buried.
“I congratulate the Israel Antiquities Authority on its participation in this international effort that turns history to reality,” said Miri Regev, Minister of Culture in Israel. “The exciting and important discovery of the prisoners escape tunnel at Ponary is yet more proof negating the lies of the Holocaust deniers.”
“The success of modern technological developments, that have aided the Jewish people to reveal another heroic story the Nazis attempted to hide, profits all humanity.”
Those who suffered, were gassed, dug tunnels, were shot, or escaped, are all a testament to the human spirit, most often hanging on to hope until the last second. The only wish here of course is that more had been able to follow through this tunnel or another successfully, but we know that was not in the cards for millions.
“As an Israeli whose family originated in Lithuania, I was reduced to tears on the discovery of the escape tunnel at Ponary,” said Dr. Seligman. “This discovery is a heartwarming witness to the victory of hope over desperation.”
“The exposure of the tunnel enables us to present, not only the horrors of the Holocaust, but also the yearning for life.”
While this is obviously a historical site that must be preserved, it also is an emotional snapshot of just one horrible exercise prisoners were forced to perform—but too shows their amazing spirit and persistence. It’s hoped that soon they will be able to excavate the tunnel and integrate it into the memorial that has already been erected at the site of the massacre of so many in Ponary.
In conclusion, I almost didn’t write this particular article today. It would have been so much easier on a sunny afternoon to think about a miraculous new scientific breakthrough or a furry pet being saved via the amazing technology of today, but as I began to walk away from it, I came back and wanted to be a part of telling this story too because these brave people should be talked about and talked about a lot. And as there is ‘no master list’ for the number of people who died in the horror of the Holocaust, we should forever honor and remember those known and unknown, as well as celebrating the brave and lucky ones who miraculously got away and lived to tell us their history—which is part of the history of the world. Were you surprised to hear that 3D technology played a part in this discovery? Discuss in the 3D Technology at Ponary Holocaust Tunnel forum over at 3DPB.com.[Source/Images: Daily Mail]