For almost 70 years, the fabled tunnel in the heart of Lithuania lay in that misty region between rumor and reality.
Survivors spoke of it to their children but it sounded so fantastic, it was hard to believe. Locals whispered about the death pits at Ponary where the Jews were slaughtered, and a miraculous tunnel that carried some of the victims to safety. But no one knew where it was. Or if indeed it existed.
A handful of Ponary survivors even shared their testimony in a series of interviews for a 1980s Holocaust documentary by filmmaker Claude Lanzmann. Yet, the tale of shackled and handcuffed prisoners stealthily digging a 110 ft. tunnel 9 feet underground with their bare hands night after night, and finally making a dash for freedom under a hail of Nazi bullets, was so incredible it remained the stuff of legend.
Compounding the skepticism was the fact that no physical evidence of the tunnel entrance or exit could be found after the war. Returning many years after the Holocaust to the extermination site—now covered by luxuriant bushes and foliage—survivor Mordechai Zeidel was unable to locate the passageway through which he had escaped certain death.
“Of course I believed my father,” said Zeidels’ daughter, Hanna Amir, in an interview many decades later. “But when I asked him, “How did it happen, Papa?” he spoke in half-sentences, with unemotional details. That was how he kept the terrible memories at a distance… It wasn’t until the series of interviews with Claude Lanzmann that I finally heard the whole story.”
Survivor accounts of tens of thousands of Jewish men, women and children gunned down at close range and buried or burned in giant death pits in Ponary, were also treated with skepticism. How was it possible that 70-80 thousand people could have been butchered here without a trace left behind of these horrific crimes? Were the remains of tens of thousands of bodies truly lying beneath the serene surface of the Ponary forest?
Tragic End of The Crown Jewel
At its peak, before World War II and the Holocaust, Vilna, the “Yerushalayim of Lita,” was an epicenter of Jewish scholarship, learning and tradition, where the preeminent Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, zt”l, led his generation in the turbulent pre-war era until his death in 1940.
The crown jewel of Lithuanian Jewry, Vilna boasted a Jewish population of some 77,000, over a hundred shuls, scores of rabbonim, dayonim, lamdonim, shochtim, and the largest Jewish library in the world. Vilna’s decline began in 1940, when the Soviet Union absorbed Lithuania, brutally shut down religious and cultural institutions, and enforced the teaching of communism and atheism in the schools.
After German armies attacked Russia in 1941, quickly conquering Lithuania, they turned their savagery on the Jews, eagerly assisted by the Lithuanians. As documented by eyewitness testimony, photographs, and Nazi records, the Christian population in Lithuania welcomed the Germans as liberators [from Soviet occupation] in 1941. Almost immediately, Lithuanian citizens from all strata of society began persecuting and butchering their Jewish neighbors before German rule had even been firmly established.
Over the next three years, 96 percent of Lithuania’s 250,000 Jews were massacred wholesale—a near-complete extermination, greater than in almost any other part of Nazi-occupied Europe. The country has never recognized the magnitude of Lithuanian collaboration in these mass murders.
Holocaust By Bullets
The Jews of Lithuania were methodically gunned down at mass executions sites such as Ponary, the Seventh and Ninth Forts of Kovno and other locations throughout Lithuania.
Gas chambers and crematoria had not yet been built at this juncture. Some historians believe that these massacres—the “Holocaust by bullets”—that wiped out almost the entire Jewish population of Lithuania, convinced the Nazis that genocide was actually possible, paving the way for the wholesale implementation of the so-called Final Solution.
At Ponary the bodies were buried in huge pits originally excavated by the Soviets for the purpose of storing fuel tanks and ammunition. The Nazis, however, overran Lithuania before the tanks could be installed. They found the deep pits ideal as a mass execution site, where the victims’ bodies could be interred by the tens of thousands.
The barbaric killings continued methodically until late 1943. According to survivor accounts, a Lithuanian rifle brigade of 150 men murdered the majority of the prisoners — usually in groups of about 10 at a time. The massacres went on for full days at a time. The victims were first blindfolded and then forced to the edge of a pit where they were shot in the back and flung over the pit’s edge.
According to post-Holocaust research, one pit alone held 20,000 to 25,000 corpses.
The few victims who were wounded but managed to escape staggered back to the Vilna ghetto, describing the horror they had witnessed. The surviving Jews were paralyzed by terror and despair. They had been told that the roundups that had hauled away tens of thousands of Vilna Jews on trains and trucks were for the purpose of sending them to labor camps. For a while, the Vilna Judenrat reinforced this delusion.
Even as people began suspecting they were being lied to, the truth was too horrific to absorb.
Expunge All The Evidence
In late 1943, with Russian armies advancing from the east and partisans attacking German supply lines in surrounding forests, Hitler decided to cover up the atrocities by ordering that all the bodies be dug up and burned.
The Nazis ordered the region’s surviving Jews to first chop down large trees in the forests and cut them into planks. The Germans then formed a “burning brigade” consisting of 80 prisoners who were forced into the sickening task of opening the graves and exhuming the thousands of corpses. They had to build huge funeral pyres with layers of wood interspersed with layers of bodies, and set the whole structure aflame.
In the Lanzmann interview, some 35 years after these events, Mordechai Zeidel described the ghoulish work he and his fellow prisoners were forced to do:
“Before we could open the graves and take out the kedoshim, we had to build the pyres on which they made us burn the bodies…There were fifteen to seventeen pyres. On each pyre we burned about three thousand five hundred Jews, in total sixty-four thousand.”
“The work was divided up,” he continued. “Some had to build the Scheiterhaufen (pyres); others were charged with opening the graves; others with transporting the bodies; the “dentist” had to remove the gold teeth before they burned the bodies; another was charged with setting fire to the Scheiterhaufen… We had to use all sorts of flammable products, gasoline, fuel, oil…The pyres came to a height of seven meters (23 feet).”
They Burst Into Tears
“At first when we opened the graves, we couldn’t hold back, we all burst into sobs,” Zeidel recalled. “The Germans attacked us furiously. They forced us to work at a crazed pace for two days without tools. With endless beatings. Use your hands, they said. Woe to anyone caught referring to the bodies as ‘the dead’ or ‘the victims.’ The dead Jews had to be referred to as garbage. Shmattas.
After a day’s work, being beaten and stabbed by bayonets as they worked, the “burning brigade” descended a ladder into a bunker built to house them. Handcuffed, with feet shackled, they collapsed there for the night.
For months, the Jewish prisoners dug up and burned bodies. Several came across their own family members among the corpses. Isaac Dugin spoke about discovering his wife and three sisters with their children. They had been killed in the winter and their bodies were somewhat preserved by the cold.
“I recognized the medallion my wife was wearing when they killed her,” Isaac Dugin said 35 years later in the Lanzmann interview. His lips trembled at he recalled how he had almost lost the will to survive in those moments of terrible grief.
Diary of Horrors
Another escapee, Shlomo Gol, came upon his dead father, his wife and his children in one of the mass graves.
“My father recorded his experiences in a diary but spoke very little to us of his past,” his son Abe reflected many years later. “Although he was a leader and full of life when he was young, he later turned very quiet and withdrew into himself.”
The young Abe Gol learned about his father’s horrific ordeal by listening in to his conversation with fellow escapees during their annual reunion, on the last day of Pesach. Over dinner, the men talked of the past, not taking note of the young boy listening in.
Later as an adult, Abe Gol translated his father’s memoirs into English. An excerpt from that memoir cites the scope of the atrocities committed at Ponary by Nazi barbarians and their Lithuanian helpers.
“We dug up altogether 68,000 corpses,” Gol wrote. “I know this because two of the Jews in the pit with us were ordered by the Germans to keep count of the bodies – that was their sole job. Amongst those that I dug up I found my own brother. I found his identification papers on him. He had been dead two years when I dug him up, because I know that he was in a batch of 10,000 Jews from the Vilna ghetto who were shot in September 1941.”
As the digging up and burning of the bodies proceeded, eleven of the eighty Jews were shot by the guards – sadistic acts intended to terrorize and break the spirit of the prisoners.
The group remained chained above the legs and around their wrists as they worked, which greatly slowed them down, incurring the Nazis’ wrath. They were constantly beaten and threatened with execution. They realized they were living on borrowed time.
“Once the job was finished, they would kill us so no one could tell the world what they had done here. In desperation, we began to plan an escape. We had nothing to lose,” recalled Mordechai Zeidel and Isaac Dugin in the Lanzmann interviews.
Dugin, an electrician, proposed tunneling out of the pit as the only possible means of escape, and took the lead in formulating how it could be done. About 25 of the 80 prisoners were privy to the plan, including Yudi Farber, who was a civil engineer. Farber and Dugin mapped out the tunnel’s route. Dugin stealthily strung up a cable to the Nazi’s generator, wiring it to an electric bulb deep inside the tunnel so the prisoners could dig at night.
To bypass the barbed wire and the explosive mines that were planted around the execution site, the tunnel had to extend about 110 feet. After a full day of backbreaking work, the “tunnelers” would feverishly begin clawing and digging, using their bare hands, spoons, screwdrivers and whatever tools they were able to find to extend the tunnel’s path.
In a little less than three months they had scooped out 32 tons of sand and dirt and had excavated past the barbed wire and mines to the forest outside the pits.
Timed For Last Night Of Pesach
In his own interview with Lanzmann, Shlomo Gol spoke of a rabbi who had been with them in Ponary who advised them to time the escape with the last day of Pesach as it would be totally dark then, with no moonlight to give them away. The rabbi said he was unable to attempt the escape with them but encouraged the prisoners and blessed them that they should merit Divine protection and success.
“…I hugged my father, I hugged my brothers-in-law,” recalled Dugin about the tension-fraught moment of departure. No one knew if anyone would survive. “We were still far from the end of our nightmare. As soon as we stuck our heads out, we still had to cover some distance to, get to the fence and beyond. And we had to evade the SS machine guns and their dogs.”
“It was the middle of April—springtime,” noted Zeidel’s daughter, Hana Amir. “The noise of dry leaves crackling underfoot alerted the guards. They shone lights on the prisoners dashing through the forest and began to fire at them with machine guns.
“Fire burst from everywhere,” recalled Zeidel. “Where there had been a group of fifteen to twenty around me, suddenly there were no more than five.”
In the end, of the original group of about 60, only twelve men managed to flee to safety. The rest were cut down by machine gun fire. The escapees spent several months hiding in the forest. In early July, the Red Army, having launched a new offensive against the Germans, encircled Vilna. Zeidel joined with other partisans to fight alongside the Soviets to liberate the city, and by mid-July the Germans were driven out.
New Life in Israel
With the war over, Zeidel, the sole survivor of his family, said goodbye to Europe and smuggled himself into Palestine-Israel. He fought in the War of Independence. In 1948, he married an old acquaintance who had also survived the Vilna Ghetto. At the time of the Lanzmann interview, Seidel and his wife had two married children, a grown son and a granddaughter.
Once a year, on the last day of Pesach, the anniversary of the escape, Zeidel would meet with Isaac Dogin and David Kantorovich, another member of the Burning Brigade. Over l’chaims, his daughter Hana Amir recounts, they would catch up with each other’s lives and reminisce about their experiences, the horrors, the grief and the miracles.
“The Jews are the strongest people on earth,” Amir recalled her father saying again and again. “Look at what they tried to do to us! And still, we lived.”
“My father made several pilgrimages back to Ponary,” Hana Amir reminisced. He was determined to locate the passageway that carried him to freedom. But he never found it.”
In his final trip to Ponary, in 2002, Zeidel traveled with his daughter Hana, son Shraga and three of his grandchildren. The family clustered together near a burial pit. Cursing in Yiddish, Zeidel shook his fist at invisible demons of the past.
“Can you see me, you scum?” Zeidel cried out to the ghosts of the Nazi degenerates who had been his captors at Ponary. “Barbarians! I am here with my children, and my children have children of their own, and they are here, too! Can you see? Can you see?”
Until 2016, despite efforts by Lithuanian archeologists to explore rumors of a fabled escape tunnel, no evidence of its existence had ever been found. Then an American-Israeli archeological team made a stunning breakthrough.
Jon Seligman, a leading researcher with the Israel Antiquities Authority had joined ranks with Dr. Richard Freund of the University of Hartford to probe the persistent rumors of an underground tunnel at the burial pits at Ponary. Freund had directed archaeological projects at the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland, as well as at ancient sites in Israel.
In 2014, the two scholars decided to cooperate on the project, “spurred by their similar ancestral descent from Vilna Jews,” wrote JTA. “A third member of the documentary team with Jewish roots in Eastern Europe was Paula Apsell, the senior executive producer for ‘Nova.’”
Seligman and Freund had initially focused on exploring the fate of the centuries-old Great Synagogue of Vilna, (the Vilna Gaon’s shul) once the center of Jewish worship and scholarship, which had been destroyed by the Germans. The Soviets later razed the remains and erected a school over the site.
Using state of the art radar and imaging equipment, the two archeologists made some dramatic discoveries many feet underground, notably the mikveh and pieces of the beis haknesses. Intrigued by reports from some of the locals about an escape tunnel in nearby Ponary, they decided to embark on their own investigation.
Seligman and Freund ruled out using the traditional method of digging into an archaeological site with spades and machines as that would desecrate the site, “victimizing the dead a second time,” Freund told JTA.
Instead, the teams used noninvasive techniques such as Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), which uses radar pulses to record images of objects found beneath the earth’s surface. They also used Electrical Resistivity Tomography (ETR), with which scientists investigate sub-surface materials through their electrical properties, similar to MRI imaging of the human body.
In addition, Freund and Seligman met in Israel with the children of the survivors, and used their shared recollections of their fathers’ accounts of the tunnel to guide them in their explorations.
Their probes spanned two years. Thanks to the GPR and ETR imaging techniques, in 2016 the investigators were finally able to locate the existence and dimensions of the extraordinary Ponary escape tunnel. In the process, they also discovered a heretofore unknown mass murder pit –one of 12 in the region—that held 7000 bodies.
Fully aware of the monstrous conditions in which the prisoners had slaved in the burial pits, the team was stunned at how these abused and exhausted prisoners had, over two and a half months, managed to dig their way out under the nose of the Nazis.
Yearning For Life
“As an Israeli whose family originated in Lithuania,” Seligman of the Antiquities Authority wrote, “I was reduced to tears on the discovery of the escape tunnel at Ponary. The exposure of this tunnel enables us to present not only the horrors and scope of the Holocaust, but also the yearning for life that drove the captives.”
While the tunnel was too delicate to be excavated and opened up to public view, the team was satisfied that it had been conclusively found. Its discovery fully corroborated the testimony of the escapees not only about the tunnel but the atrocities perpetrated at Ponary.
“Our goal was to publicize this place to the world,” Dr. Freund said. “So that people can learn what happened here and come with tears, to remember the victims and say the Mourner’s kaddish. Because the worst thing is to look away. To forget.”
At the time of the tunnel’s discovery, the escapees were no longer alive. Zeidel, the last living member of the Burning Brigade, had died in 2007. One day, his daughter Hana returned home to find her phone ringing. “Everyone wanted to know if I’d heard about the amazing discovery,” she recalled.
Quickly booting up her computer, she found a rash of headlines about the tunnel. “It had been found. It was all over the media. International. I started to tremble, my hands shook. I kept thinking, ‘If only Papa were here with me right now! How he longed to find it!’”