For decades following the horrors of the Holocaust, rumors circulated about an escape tunnel in the Ponar Forest near Vilnius, Lithuania dug by a band of imprisoned Jews. The claim remained folk legend, until recently.
A team of researchers including Dr. Philip Reeder, Dean of Duquesne University’s Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, confirmed the story of the “Burning Brigade” during their trip last month. An estimated 80 prisoners dug for 76 nights before attempting to escape a Nazi extermination pit.
“This presented a great opportunity to combine science, archeology and archival studies to sort of write the history of this escape and the history of Ponar,” Reeder said.
Reeder said the extermination pit started with the construction of a Soviet fuel depot in 1941. But as World War II broke out and Nazis started taking over more territory, the Soviets left Lithuania. Left behind were two deep holes at the site of the would-be depot.
At this time, Nazis had created two ghettos for Lithuanian Jews, near the capitol.
"And they had to figure out a way to murder them," Reeder said.
That's when the Nazis took Lithuanian Jews from the ghettos on "supposed work details (at the former Soviet fuel depot), which they never returned from."
By July of 1944, Reed said the killings at Ponar had stopped. As Soviet troops narrowed in on the Nazi-held territory in Lithuania, Reeder said the Nazis panicked and looked for a way to cover up their atrocities.
“The method they came up with was to gather up these 80 Jews that still remained, to bring them out to the forest and then to have them work as this burning brigade,” Reeder said.
The Jews were forced to dig up 100,000 bodies, burn them and scatter the ashes with sand.
That’s when the remaining 80 prisoners hatched a plan to escape. At night, the prisoners, while shackled together, would use their hands and spoons to ultimately dig a 100-foot tunnel out of the camp. Though, they were left with the issue of where to place the leftover dirt.
“They couldn’t place it in their bunker because it would be seen that there was fresh deposits of dirt in the bunker,” Reeder said. “So, they actually had to clandestinely place it around the site as they went out to their daily task of digging up the bodies and burning the bodies.”
Eventually they poked through to the other side of the barbed wire fence.
Then chained together, one-by-one, they left through the tunnel, Reeder said. The prisoners then had to remove the shackles. They attempted to do so using a nail file, but were ultimately spotted by the German guards.
Twelve of the prisoners made it out of the tunnel, had picked the locks and were able to run into the forest. The remaining prisoners retreated back into the bunker, Reeder said.
Ultimately 11 prisoners survived the war, though none are alive today. Reeder said prior to the war, that area of Lithuania was home to a thriving Jewish population, but today only enough remain to comprise one synagogue.
Reeder and his team were invited to the region initially to locate the ruins of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius.
“It’s always sort of humbling to think that you can either write history of rewrite history,” Reeder said.
By utilizing ground-penetrating radar and electroresistivity tomography, the team was able to map out the tunnel without excavating the surface, which aligned with the Jewish law prohibiting the disturbance of grave sites.
Reeder said the tunnel, Burning Brigade and a recently discovered burial pit will be memorialized with a monument, and turned into a small museum.
The search for the tunnel has been chronicled by the PBS program NOVA, that will air a documentary about the search in 2017.
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