Escape Tunnels in the Shoah

This is written for Holocaust (Shoah) Memorial Day in Israel, April 24, that commemorates the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  Recently an escape tunnel was discovered under the trees and fields of the Ponar Forest outside Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.  It was discovered using modern technology, although its existence had been known about since the end of WWII.  The Ponar Forest was the site of an infamous massacre in 1941, when the Jews of Vilnius and surroundings were rounded up and transported to the nearby forest where they were murdered by Lithuanian fascists usually by shooting or more brutal means. Approximately 100,000 people were killed there!  

Towards the end of the war in 1944, the Nazis were concerned to cover up all instances of the mass murders of Jews, and they selected a group of young Jewish men to help remove all trace of the victims of the massacres at Ponar.  The Jews had in fact been massacred in several large depressions in the earth and then buried.   The terrible job of this brigade was to dig up the remains of the Jews and then burn them and destroy their bones, grind them to dust.  

While they were doing this, day after day, they concocted a plan to dig a tunnel to enable them to escape from their hell.  Using spoons and other implements they dug a tunnel that enabled ca. 20 of them to escape before they were detected.  Most of them were killed in the subsequent search, but a few managed to get far enough away and joined the partisans in the nearby forest. At least one of the survivors, Motke Zeidel, made it to Israel after the War.

Only now many years later did a group of archeologists using ground-seeking radar and electrical resistivity instruments find conclusive evidence of the presence of the tunnel. It is too narrow and delicate to excavate, but the entrance is being prepared as an exhibit by the Jewish Museum in Vilnius (see Smithsonian Magazine, “The Holocaust’s Great Escape” Matthew Shaer, March 2017 p. 42)

In Kaunas (Kovno) the second largest city in Lithuania, the Jews were mainly killed in the Ninth Fort, the last and largest of the forts ringing the city, that had never been completed and had a large central pit.  It was the site of perhaps the first massacre of Jews in WWII on March 18, 1941.  German Jews were sent by train to the east to be exterminated. Looking for places to do this the Nazis came up with the Ninth Fort.  The first 5 trains, carrying ca. 4,500 Reich Jews was sent there and the Jews (men, women and children) were shot by the special Einsatzgruppen and their bodies dumped into the pit and covered.  

Subsequently many other Jews were simply beaten and thrown into the pit, altogether about 30,000 were murdered in this way!  In 1943, fearing the approach of the Russians, the Nazis sent a group of Jewish prisoners to extract the bodies of the Jews and burn them.  A group of Jews began to investigate the subterranean tunnels and structures under the fort. They came to an iron door that led to the outside and managed to drill a hole and get through it.  This was a meticulously planned escape and on Christmas Day, 1943 all 64 Jews managed to escape (see “Escaping the Ninth Fort,” Jewish Resistance in the Holocaust, based on “The Black Book,” eds. Aaronburg and Grossman, Am Oved, 1991).

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