Jul 5, 2016 | By Tess

During the Second World War, a small group of Jewish prisoners held in the notorious Stutthof concentration camp in Lithuania managed to escape through a tunnel dug with spoons. The almost legendary tunnel, located in the Ponar forest outside of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, has for various reasons eluded archaeologists and scientists up until very recently, when a new scanning device allowed for an international team of researchers to locate and map out the tunnel.

The prisoners who fled on the fateful night in 1944 were part of a group of Jewish prisoners tasked with burning the bodies of those killed by the Nazis. According to records, about 100,000 people were murdered by the Nazis in the Ponar region of Lithuania during WWII, almost 70,000 of them being Jewish. The “burning brigade” as the group was called, was made up of 80 prisoners who were forced by the Nazis to burn the bodies of those killed in the concentration camps to cover up evidence of the genocide in Ponar. On April 14th, 1944, nearly half those prisoners tried to escape through a tunnel that had been painstakingly dug by hand and spoon, and in the end only 11 survived the escape.

Up until now, the tunnel that led those 11 prisoners to freedom was known to be located in the Ponar forest as researchers knew where its entrance was, through survivor testimonies, but details of where it led and how long it was were unknown. Additionally, invasive processes like digging were out of the question for reasons including the delicate nature of the region and its history. Now, however, thanks to an international team of researchers from Israel, Lithuania, the United States, and Canada, and electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) we know more than ever about the legendary Ponar tunnel.

Using ERT, a scanning technique used by the oil and gas industries which is capable of detecting changes in electrical properties underground, the team of researchers was able to uncover the path of the tunnel, which spanned over 115 ft (35m) in length. Jon Seligman, an archeaologist from the Israel Antiquities Authority who helped with the uncovering, said, “As an Israeli whose family originated in Lithuania, I was reduced to tears on the discovery of the escape tunnel at Ponar. The exposure of the tunnel enables us to present, not only the horrors of the Holocaust, but also the yearning for life.”

The scanning technology also helped the researchers to locate previously unknown mass grave sites in the forested area, which could eventually help to shed more light on the victims and atrocities that occurred in Lithuania during WWII.

Holocaust memorial in Ponar, Lithuania. (Ezra Wolfinger, Nova)

The uncovering of the tunnel has been a significant breakthrough for Holocaust researchers, and the scanning technology used to uncover it will surely be used again. As Richard Freund, a professor of Jewish history at the University of Hartford in Connecticut explained in a statement, “Geoscience will allow testimonies of survivors—like the account of the escape through the tunnel—and many events of the Holocaust to be researched and understood in new ways for generations to come.”

An in depth NOVA documentary about the Ponar tunnel and its uncovering will be premiered on PBS in 2017.



Posted in 3D Scanning



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