Seventy years ago, Vilnius, Lithuania was a bustling town home to over 100,000 Jews. But then it all disappeared.
From 1941 to 1944, 95% of Lithuanian Jews were killed. Archaeologists are now finding a story of hope and courage hidden within this horrific tragedy of the Holocaust.
In June, a team led by Richard Freund, a Judaic studies professor, and Jon Seligman, an archaeologist, discovered an old escape tunnel at Ponar, just outside of Vilnius. Until now, the tunnel had just been a rumor passed down orally from escapees, their descendants, and other Lithuanian Jews from the era.
On the last night of Passover, April 14, 1944, 80 Jews began their escape from the pit where they were being held prisoner through a 100-foot tunnel that they had dug by hand. They dug secretly during the night, chained to each other, for three long months before their escape. Sadly, only 11 of these 80 prisoners survived. But these 11 shared their stories and the stories were passed on to others. For many years, the tunnel’s exact location was a mystery. Archaeologists were afraid to risk disturbing the more than 100,000 remains buried at Ponar by digging for the tunnel.
However, advances in archeological technology have the team to study the site using noninvasive techniques, including ground penetrating radar (GPR) and electrical resistivity tomography (ERT). Once using the equipment, the tunnel was discovered almost immediately. These x-ray technologies allowed them to peer into sites previously off limits due to concerns of disturbing the site.
“All these technologies allow people to gain information about an era—the Holocaust era—without having to desecrate a burial site,” Freund said.
Freund is working with the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum and the Tolerance Center of Lithuania to create an exhibit so that visitors from around the world can hear the story of the courageous Jews that dug their way out of the death pits.
Freund said it will be a refreshingly different piece of Holocaust history—“a story about life instead of death.”
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