An international team of archaeologists and mapmakers found a tunnel made by 80 Jews who attempted to escape one night in April 1944 from the Nazi extermination site in the Ponar forest, known today as Paneriai, Lithuania. Only 11 prisoners survived after digging for 76 nights using only their hands, spoons and other handmade tools

Lead researcher Richard Freund, an archaeologist and professor of Jewish History at the University of Hartford, calls this one of the great Jewish escapes during the Holocaust. The entrance of this 100-foot (30 meters) tunnel has been found in 2004 but the exact location of the escape tunnel was not found until now.

The research team used the noninvasive electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) technique to locate the direction and outline of the escape tunnel. This method, which is like the MRI for the ground, allowed the team to find the Holocaust tunnel without digging.


Professors Richard Freund, University of Hartford (tan hat); Harry Jol, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (face obscured); and Philip Reeder, Duquesne University discuss where the next round of work will be conducted. Credit: Ezra Wolfinger for NOVA

One hundred thousand people died at Ponar, including 70,000 Jews. They were killed by Nazis and 150 Lithuanian collaborators in groups of 10 for over four years.

However, as the Soviets were about to take control of Lithuania, the Nazis tried to hide the evidence of the murdered prisoners. The 80 Jews were forced to dig up the bodies, burn them and then bury the ashes. This group of 80 Jews are also known as the Burning Brigade.

The Burning Brigade realized that they were going to be killed after completing this harrowing task. So they made the tunnel where they would escape on the night of April 15, 1944.

However, the guards were alerted as the prisoners tried to flee the site. Only 12 successfully escaped and 11 of them survived the war to tell others, including the research team, of their stories.

A previously unknown pit was also found, which the researchers believe to contain 10,000 bodies. This would make it one of the biggest pits detected in the area.

The team also rediscovered the Great Synagogue of Vilnius using the same technique. The great rabbinic scholar Gaon of Vilna lived in this five-story synagogue, which was established between the 16th and 17th centuries.

The PBS science series NOVA will air a documentary about the Holocaust tunnel research. This will premiere in the US next year.