Shortly after dawn one January day in 1944, a German military truck departed the center of Vilnius, in what is today Lithuania, and rattled southwest toward the fog-laced towns that ringed the city. Near the village of Ponar, the vehicle came to a halt, and a pale 18-year-old named Motke Zeidel, chained at the ankles, was led from the cargo hold.
Zeidel had spent the previous two years in German-occupied Vilnius, in the city’s walled-off Jewish ghetto. He’d watched as the Nazis sent first hundreds and then thousands of Jews by train or truck or on foot to a camp in the forest. A small number of people managed to flee the camp, and they returned with tales of what they’d seen: rows of men and women machine-gunned down at close range. Mothers pleading for the lives of their children. Deep earthen pits piled high with corpses. And a name: Ponar.
Now Zeidel himself had arrived in the forest. Nazi guards led him through a pair of gates and past a sign: “Entrance Strictly Forbidden. Danger to life. Mines.” Ahead, through the gaps in the pines, he saw massive depressions in the ground covered with fresh earth—the burial pits. “This is it,” he said to himself. “This is the end.”
The Nazi killing site at Ponar is today known to scholars as one of the first examples of the “Holocaust by bullets”—the mass shootings that claimed the lives of upwards of two million Jews across Eastern Europe. Unlike the infamous gas chambers at places like Auschwitz, these murders were carried out at close range, with rifles and machine guns. Significantly, the killings at Ponar marked the transition to the Final Solution, the Nazi policy under which Jews would no longer be imprisoned in labor camps or expelled from Europe but exterminated.
Zeidel braced for the crack of a rifle.
It never came. Opening his eyes, he found himself standing face to face with a Nazi guard, who told him that beginning immediately, he must work with other Jewish prisoners to cut down the pine trees around the camp and transport the lumber to the pits. “What for?” Zeidel later recalled wondering. “We didn’t know what for.”
A week later, he and other members of the crew received a visit from the camp’s Sturmbannführer, or commander, a 30-year-old dandy who wore boots polished shiny as mirrors, white gloves that reached up to his elbows, and smelled strongly of perfume. Zeidel remembered what the commandant told them: “Just about 90,000 people were killed here, lying in mass graves.” But, the Sturmbannführer explained, “there must not be any trace” of what had happened at Ponar, lest Nazi command be linked to the mass murder of civilians. All the bodies would have to be exhumed and burned. The wood collected by Zeidel and his fellow prisoners would form the pyres.
By late January, roughly 80 prisoners, known to historians as the Burning Brigade, were living in the camp, in a subterranean wood-walled bunker they’d built themselves. Four were women, who washed laundry in large metal vats and prepared meals, typically a chunk of ice and dirt and potato melted down to stew. The men were divided into groups. The weaker men maintained the pyres that smoldered through the night, filling the air with the heavy smell of burning flesh. The strongest hauled bodies from the earth with bent and hooked iron poles. One prisoner, a Russian named Yuri Farber, later recalled that they could identify the year of death based on the corpse’s level of undress:
People who were murdered in 1941 were dressed in their outer clothing. In 1942 and 1943, however, came the so-called “winter aid campaign” to “voluntarily” give up warm clothing for the German Army. Beginning in 1942, people were herded in and forced to undress to their underwear.
Double-sided ramps were built inside the pits. One crew hauled stretchers filled with corpses up the ramp, and another crew pushed the bodies onto the pyre. In a week, the Burning Brigade might dispose of 3,500 bodies or more. Later, the guards forced prisoners to sift through the ashes with strainers, looking for bone fragments, which would then be pounded down into powder.
All told, historians have documented at least 80,000 people shot at Ponar between 1941 and 1944, and many believe the true number is greater still. Ninety percent of those killed were Jews. That the Nazis charged a brigade of prisoners to disinter and dispose of the bodies, in the most sickening of circumstances, only amplifies the horror.
“From the moment when they made us bring up the corpses, and we understood that we wouldn’t get out of there alive, we reflected on what we could do,” Zeidel remembered.
And so the prisoners turned to one thought: escape.
Richard Freund, an American archaeologist at the University of Hartford, in Connecticut, specializes in Jewish history, modern and ancient. He has been traversing the globe for almost three decades, working at sites as varied as Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and at Sobibor, a Nazi extermination camp in eastern Poland. Unusually for a man in his profession, he rarely puts trowel to earth. Instead, Freund, who is rumpled and stout, with eyes that seem locked in a perpetual squint, practices what he calls “noninvasive archaeology,” which uses ground-penetrating radar and other types of computerized electronic technology to discover and describe structures hidden underground.
One day this past fall I walked the grounds of the Ponar forest with Freund and a couple of his colleagues, who had recently completed a surveying project of the area. Snow had been forecast, but by late morning the only precipitation was icy rain, driven sideways by the wind. The forest was mostly empty, save for a group of ten Israelis who had arrived that morning; they all had family from Vilnius, one of the men explained, and were honoring them by visiting local Holocaust sites.
I followed Freund up a short slope and past a trench where prisoners had been lined up and shot. It was now a barely perceptible dip in the loam. Freund stepped gingerly around it. In the distance, a train whistle howled, followed by the huff of a train, shuddering over tracks that had carried prisoners to their deaths decades earlier. Freund waited for it to pass. He recalled that he’d spent nearly a month researching the site—but “a few days,” he said, “is plenty of time to think about how many people died here, the amount of blood spilled.”
Although he was raised some 5,000 miles from Lithuania, on Long Island, New York, Freund has deep roots in the area. His great-grandparents fled Vilnius in the early 20th century, during an especially violent series of pogroms undertaken by the Czarist government, when the city still belonged to the Russian Empire. “I’ve always felt a piece of me was there,” Freund told me.
Which made him all the more intrigued to hear, two years ago, about a new research project led by Jon Seligman, of the Israel Antiquities Authority, at the site of Vilnius’s Great Synagogue, a once towering Renaissance-Baroque structure dating to the 1630s. The synagogue, which had also housed a vast library, kosher meat stalls and a communal well, had at one time been the crown jewel of the city, itself a center of Jewish life in Eastern Europe—the “Jerusalem of the North.” By one estimate, at the turn of the 20th century Vilnius was home to some 200,000 people, half of them Jewish. But the synagogue was damaged after Hitler’s army captured the city in June 1941 and herded the Jewish population into a pair of walled ghettos, whom it then sent, in successive waves, to Ponar. After the war the Soviets razed the synagogue entirely; today an elementary school stands in its place.
Lithuanian archaeologists had discovered remnants of the old synagogue—evidence of several intact subterranean chambers. “The main synagogue floor, parts of the grand Tuscan pillars, the bimah”—or altar—“the decorated ceiling,” Freund explained. “All of that had been underground, and it survived.”
Freund and his colleagues, including Harry Jol, a professor of geology and anthropology from the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, and Philip Reeder, a geoscientist and mapping expert from Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh, were brought in to explore further. They spent five days scanning the ground beneath the school and the surrounding landscape with ground-penetrating radar, and emerged with a detailed digital map that displayed not just the synagogue’s main altar and seating area but also a separate building that held a bathhouse containing two mikvaot, or ceremonial baths, a well for water and several latrines. Afterward, Freund met with the staff at the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, named after the famed 18th-century Talmudic scholar from Vilnius, and a partner on the Great Synagogue project. Then, Freund said, “We asked them: ‘What else would you like us to do? We’ll do it for free.’”
The next day, a museum staffer named Mantas Siksnianas took Freund and his crew to the forests of Ponar, a 20-minute drive from the city center. Most of the nearby Nazi-era burial pits had been located, Siksnianas explained, but local archaeologists had found a large area, overgrown with foliage, that looked as if it might be an unidentified mass grave: Could Freund and his colleagues determine if it was?
As Siksnianas led Freund through the woods, he told an astonishing story about a group of prisoners who had reportedly tunneled to freedom and joined partisan fighters hiding out in the forest. But when Freund asked to see exactly how they made it out, he got only shrugs. No one could show him; no one knew. Because a tunnel had never been definitively located and documented, the story had come to take on the contours of a fable, and three-quarters of a century on, it seemed destined to remain a legend without any verifiable evidence to back it up—a crucial piece of the historical record, lost to time.
So the following year, in June 2016, Freund returned with two groups of researchers and their equipment and for the first time mapped the unknown areas of the site, including any unmarked mass graves. Then, using a collection of aerial photographs of Ponar shot by Nazi reconnaissance planes and captured during the war, which helped give the researchers a better sense of the camp’s layout, Freund and his colleagues turned their attention to finding clues about how the camp’s fabled survivors were able to find a way out. (A “Nova” television documentary about the discoveries found in Vilnius, “Holocaust Escape Tunnel” will premiere on PBS on April 19. Check your local listings for times.)
Relying on a surveying device known as a total station—the tripod-mounted optical instrument employed by construction and road crews—Reeder set about measuring minute elevation changes across the land, searching for subtle gradations and anomalies. He zeroed in on a hummock that looked like the earthen side of a bunker, long since overgrown with moss and foliage, and roughly 100 feet away, a telltale dip in the earth.
Although the composition of the ground, largely sand, was favorable for ground-penetrating radar, the dense forest surrounding the site interfered enough with the radar signals that they decided to try another tack. Paul Bauman and Alastair McClymont, geophysicists with Advisian WorleyParsons, a transnational engineering company, had more luck with electrical resistivity tomography, or ERT, which was originally developed to explore water tables and potential mining sites. ERT technology sends jolts of electrical current into the earth by way of metal electrodes hooked up to a powerful battery and measures the distinctive levels of resistivity of different types of earth; the result is a detailed map to a depth of more than a hundred feet.
“We were able to get a readout not in real time, but close to it,” McClymont told me. “We’d pull the data off the control box, transfer it to a laptop we had with us in the field, run the data through software that does the conversion, and then we could see it”—a sliver of red against a backdrop of blue.
They were looking at a tunnel.
Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/holocaust-great-escape-180962120/#ig51Ci4El0FAUd0A.99
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