|Jewish forced laborers dug a tunnel from this holding pit near Vilnius, Lithuania, into the surrounding forest.|
A team of archaeologists and mapmakers say they have uncovered a forgotten tunnel that 80 Jews dug largely by hand as they tried to escape from a Nazi extermination site in Lithuania about 70 years ago.
The Lithuanian site, Ponar, holds mass burial pits and graves where up to 100,000 people were killed and their bodies dumped or burned during the Holocaust.
Using radar and radio waves to scan beneath the ground, the researchers found the tunnel, a 100-foot passageway between five and nine feet below the surface, the team announced on Wednesday.
A previous attempt made by a different team in 2004 to find the underground structure had only located its mouth, which was subsequently left unmarked. The new finding traces the tunnel from entrance to exit and provides evidence to support survivor accounts of the harrowing effort to escape the holding pit.
“What we were able to do was not only solve one of the greatest mysteries and escape stories of the Holocaust,” said Richard Freund, an archaeologist from the University of Hartford in Connecticut and one of the team leaders. “We were also able to unravel one of the biggest problems they have with a site like this: How many burial pits are there?”
Dr. Freund and his colleagues, working with the PBS science series NOVA for a documentary that will be broadcast next year, also uncovered another burial pit containing the ashes of perhaps 7,000 people. That would be the 12th burial pit identified in Ponar; officially known today as Paneriai.
From 1941 until 1944, tens of thousands of Jews from the nearby city of Vilnius, known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, were brought to Ponar and shot at close range. Their bodies were dumped into the pits and buried.