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Tunnel to Life

Libi Astaire

Facing certain death, the inmates took the only tools they had — spoons, plates, screwdrivers, their bare hands — and started digging. Could they possibly fashion a tunnel that would lead to freedom from the Nazis?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

 Mishpacha image

THEN, NOW Did the desperate members of the Burning Brigade really elude their Nazi tormentors by crawling to freedom on that last night of Pesach in April 1944? In 2016, an international team of archeologists came to Ponar to find out. Armed with up-to-date, alphabet-soup-sounding equipment such as GPR and ERT, they began the laborious process of testing the soil, searching for telltale inconsistencies that might signal the tunnel’s presence below the earth. Suddenly, a ghostly figure appeared amidst the trees, an elderly woman who seemed to know exactly what these archeologists were looking for. (Photos: Lior Mizrachi, Ezra Wolfinger for NOVA)

For decades, the escape tunnel at Ponar, Lithuania had largely been the stuff of legend.

In the thick of the Second World War, Jewish members of a forced-labor brigade had supposedly dug the tunnel using spoons, screwdrivers, and even their bare hands. They were members of the so-called Burning Brigade, dozens of Jews assigned to the cruel and grisly task of exhuming and burning the bodies of more than 70,000 Jews who had been executed at Ponar, outside Vilna, by the Nazis.

But did the tunnel really exist? Did the desperate members of the Burning Brigade really elude their Nazi tormentors by crawling to freedom on that last night of Pesach in April 1944?

In 2016, an international team of archeologists came to Ponar to find out. Armed with up-to-date, alphabet-soup-sounding equipment such as GPR and ERT, they began the laborious process of testing the soil, searching for telltale inconsistencies that might signal the tunnel’s presence below the earth.

Suddenly, a ghostly figure appeared amidst the trees, an elderly woman who seemed to know exactly what these archeologists were looking for.

“I was a partisan in 1944,” she told them. “I was the one who received the escapees. The Germans had radioed that they were looking for them and they’d give a reward to anyone who found them. So we went out to look for them.

“After three days we found them — they were in two groups — and brought them to the partisan camp. No one could stand next to them because they smelled of death. Until today, I can still smell them. The first thing we did was burn their clothes. But even their skin smelled of rotting bodies.”

The Road to Ponar

“Many roads lead to Ponar, but no road leads back,” wrote Yiddish author Shmerke Kaczerginski in 1943. His lyrics for the song “Shtiler, Shtiler” (“Quiet, Quiet”), composed by Aleksander Volkoviski, was written in memory of the mass murders committed at Ponar and became one of the Holocaust’s best-known songs.

Dr. Jon Seligman: “Having contact with the families gave faces to the story.” The New York Times proclaimed this the scientific discovery of the year

Kaczerginski and Volkoviski were both born and raised in Vilna and witnessed the destruction of the city’s Jewish kehillah, a community that could trace its roots back to the Middle Ages. One of the Jewish world’s most important centers for Torah study since the 16th century, as well as the home of the Vilna Gaon, Vilna was affectionately known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania. Its famous Shulhoyf (synagogue courtyard) housed not only the Great Synagogue, but also twelve other synagogues, the offices of communal institutions such as the beis din and chevra kaddisha, a bathhouse and mikveh, kosher meat stalls, a library, and even a prison. Vilna was 40 percent Jewish before the war, and in addition to the Shulhoyf there were more than 100 synagogues, as well as many yeshivos, serving the city’s prewar population of approximately 70,000 Jews.

After the Nazis occupied Vilna in July 1941, German troops, aided by their Lithuanian counterparts, began to transport Jewish men to the Ponar forest, located about six miles south of the city, and shoot them. In September 1941, the Germans liquidated a ghetto they had established in Vilna for those who couldn’t work, and these Jews were taken to Ponar and executed as well. By the end of 1941, more than 40,000 Jewish men, women, and children had been murdered there.

Before the war, Ponar had been the site of a holiday resort. But the forested area was also the site of almost a dozen 20-foot-deep pits dug by the Red Army to store fuel tanks for a nearby airfield. When the Germans took over, they turned these ready-made pits into mass graves. Eyewitnesses have described the victims’ final hour: After the Jews were transported to Ponar, they were forced to undress and then blindfolded with a piece of cloth ripped from their clothing. Walking single file, with one hand on the shoulder or arm of the person before them, they were led to a pit in groups of 10 or 20 and shot. After the bodies fell into the pit, a thin layer of sand was shoveled over them. Then the next group was led to the pit and murdered.

The Nazis continued to use Ponar as a killing field during the following year. When the large ghetto in Vilna was liquidated in September 1943, many of the Jews were brought to Ponar and murdered. Tens of thousands of Poles and Soviet prisoners of war were also murdered there. But by the end of 1943 the tide was turning. With Soviet troops advancing, the Germans decided to cover up what they had done. But how does one destroy the silent testimony of nearly 100,000 victims of Nazi atrocities? (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 665)

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