Excavate History? WWII-Era Tunnel Unearths Story of Lithuania's Jews

Jewish citizens are arrested by the Lithuanian Home Guard, who collaborated with the German occupying forces, after the occupation of Lithuania by the German Wehrmacht in July 1941. DPA/Alamy

The diary of Kazimierz Sakowicz opens with his description of a pleasant summer day in the Ponar forest, outside the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius: "July 11: Quite nice weather, warm, white clouds, windy, some shots from the forest. Probably exercises."

The shots were not exercises, as Sakowicz would very quickly discover. The year was 1941, and the Baltics had been overrun by the Nazi war machine that June. Now the occupiers—with eager help from Lithuanians—were emptying Vilnius of its vibrant Jewish population, which had turned the dense, medieval city into the "Jerusalem of the North."

The previous year, the Soviets had dug several large pits in the Ponar forest along a rail line leading out of Vilnius. The plan had been to install fuel tanks and build an airfield, but then Hitler broke the nonaggression pact he had signed with Stalin, invading the Soviet Union through Poland. The pits were abandoned, and the Soviets scrambled to prepare for battle against the Wehrmacht.

The Germans, now working with their Lithuanian collaborators, came up with new plans for the Ponar site.

It took only a day for Sakowicz to understand what was happening in the forest next to the cabin where he lived with his family. "A large group of Jews," he wrote, "was taken to the forest, about 300 people, mainly intelligentsia, with suitcases, beautifully dressed, known for their good economic situation, etc. An hour later the volleys began."

Every one of the Nazi killing sites had its own morbid efficiency; though the machinery of death at Ponar could never rival that of Auschwitz-Birkenau or Treblinka, by 1944 the Germans and Lithuanians had managed to slaughter 70,000 Jews and perhaps 30,000 other perceived enemies of the Thousand-Year Reich, including Soviets and Gypsies.

Their method was simple. Most prisoners came by train right to the precipice of what would be their grave. Some thought they'd been selected for a work detail; some knew otherwise. The condemned were told to leave their possessions and disrobe; both their belongings and their clothes would soon be picked over by the Lithuanian populace, as at a rummage sale. They were then marched down trenches into the pits and, at some point, blindfolded. Now they stood among the dead, whom they would soon join. Above, a firing squad prepared to do its work.

"Lithuanians shot us," said survivor Shalom Shorenson, "not Germans." The bloody work was overseen by Einsatzkommando 9 of the SS, but it was performed by the Ypatingasis burys, a Lithuanian outfit. Shorenson survived by falling right before the shots. Sandwiched between corpses, he eluded notice and thus became one of the few survivors of Ponar.

An Escape Route

The slaughter in the forest continued for about three years. But by 1943, after defeats at Stalingrad and elsewhere, Berlin was coming to understand that the dream of Aryan purity across the Continent was going to conclude with courtrooms and gallows, and so began the many attempts to conceal the Final Solution. In that Lithuanian forest, 80 Jewish prisoners were brought from Stutthof, a nearby concentration camp, to form a Leichenkommando "corpse unit." Its mission: burn the bodies in the pits, thus turning evidence of Nazi war crimes into inscrutable ash.

Like the Sonderkommando who removed the bodies of the dead from the gas chambers of Auschwitz, the Leichenkommando grasped that they were some horrible combination of witness, victim and unwilling perpetrator. They knew, also, that no cover-up could be complete without their own deaths. And so they started to plot an escape, collecting spoons by day as they performed their grim task, then digging a tunnel at night, from the pit where they were housed into the forest beyond.

The Jews of the corpse unit spent two and a half months digging that tunnel out of Ponar: 100 feet long and 2 feet wide, at its deepest about 15 feet below the ground.

In a novelistic turn, the Leichenkommando chose to flee on the final night of Passover in 1944, April 15, when there would be scant light in the sky. But the escape was not noiseless, and the Germans quickly arrived on the scene. Of the 80 prisoners in that pit, only 12 made it to freedom. Eleven survived the war.

The existence of the tunnel was not a secret, but it long languished in some shadow world between myth and fact. Situated in a thick coniferous forest outside of Vilnius, Ponar, known today as Paneriai, is now a memorial site, but it is also a mass grave, one that can't be easily disturbed. In 2004, a Lithuanian archaeologist found the mouth of the tunnel but wasn't able to conduct further investigations.

Eleven years later, a group of researchers were working on the remains of the Great Synagogue in Vilnius, which was damaged during the war and demolished by the Soviets, who in the postwar years became increasingly suspicious of Jewish culture. Although part of the synagogue was now under a school, the mostly American team did not need to disturb the ground because their ground-penetrating radar and electrical resistivity tomography—technology borrowed in part from the oil industry—allowed them to create an image of what was below them without pulling out their shovels.

Richard Freund, an archaeologist at the University of Hartford, says that when the team was done mapping the Great Synagogue, he posed a simple question to the Lithuanians: "What would you like us to look for?"

Ponar, the Lithuanians replied. They wanted him to find the tunnel.

Is Excavation Worth Possible Damage?

I met Freund on a humid afternoon on the University of Hartford campus, in a small room off the main library floor that functions as a museum of Jewish history. It also is, in large part, a repository of the many discoveries made by Freund, including an extensive chronicle of the Jewish quarter on the Greek island of Rhodes, which he and his students had mapped out.

A stocky, mustachioed man of middle age, Freund is both funnier and more loquacious than you might think an archaeologist could be, especially one whose primary occupation is Jewish history, with all its varieties of tragedy. Freund is from Long Island, and his strong New York accent leavens discussion of the Holocaust, giving even the most somber topics a gentle Woody Allen quality. His connection to Ponar is more than academic. His great-grandfather, Nathan Ginzburg, left Vilnius for the United States. "There were moments in that Ponary forest this June that I realized: 'But for the grace of God, I might have ended up here,'" he tells me in an email, using an alternate spelling for the site.

Educated at Queens College and in Israel, Freund is a pioneer of techno-archaeology. If traditional archaeology is like a biopsy, what Freund does is closer to an MRI, using electromagnetic waves to create images of structures that have been buried for decades, if not centuries. That is especially attractive in unstable regions like the Middle East, where extended digs may be politically unfeasible. In many places, digging is impossible for another reason: There's enough of a built environment aboveground to make ventures belowground too inconvenient to attempt.

Archaeologists are not a particularly shy breed: They want to find things, and they want the world to know what they have found. Quests for lost treasures of the ancient world, like Agamemnon's purported funeral mask or the remnants of Troy, captivated Victorian imaginations—and still play well on the History Channel.

Freund shares some of this showmanship with his predecessors. Several years ago, he touted a discovery in a Spanish marsh as possibly the mythical city of Atlantis. The search for Atlantis became a National Geographic Channel documentary; similarly, the discovery of the Ponar tunnel will be featured in a NOVA film scheduled to air on PBS in early 2017.

A pit in which victims were shot by Nazi death squads at the Ponary, now known as Panerai, a suburb of what is today Vilnius in Lithuania commemorating the Ponary Massacre of 100,000 people, mostly Jews, but also Russians, Poles, Lithuanians and others by German and Lithuanian Nazi collaborators during World War II. Eddie Gerald/Moment Open/Getty

The publicity, though, shouldn't obscure the hard work of finding the tunnel—and Freund makes clear that that work has been done thoroughly, with parcels systematically mapped one by one until a full picture emerged. In addition to the tunnel, Freund and his fellow researchers found a 12th burial pit.

But what happens next isn't up to him or any of the researchers from the United States, Lithuania or Israel who were part of the discovery. Because the soil is sandy, the tunnel has probably collapsed in places; excavation could further damage what remains. It's a cruel irony that, to remain in existence, the tunnel may also have to remain unseen.

Freund, though, believes the risk of excavation is worth it. "I think the Lithuanians should do this," he tells me. "It's their site, their history."

Retreating From History

In the summer of 2011, a memorial at Ponar was defaced with a swastika and the words, spray-painted in red, "Hitler was right." Writing about the vandalism for The New York Review of Books, Yale historian Timothy Snyder noted that although Lithuanians had been generally tolerant of the thousands of Jews living in their midst, "the Germans had no trouble finding Lithuanians willing to kill Jews," so that 10 percent of the prewar population survived the Holocaust. As for the desecration at Ponar, Snyder pointed to Lithuanians' refusal to fully acknowledge their complicity in the Final Solution. "The Lithuanian government tends to focus on the Lithuanian victims of the Soviet occupation," downplaying culpability while claiming victimhood.

In the five years since the vandalism at Ponar, Lithuania has retreated ever further from historical realities. As Daniel Brook wrote in Slate last year, there are not even 5,000 Jews in Lithuania today, which makes it easy to minimize the extent of the crimes committed against them. He described the country as less economically successful than many of its European peers and thus more susceptible to misguided historical narratives that trigger feelings of self-pity and injustice. "The Nazis were bad; the Soviets were worse," one young Lithuanian told him.

Ponar is a powerful, visceral rebuke to this revisionism, which is likely why it was targeted by neo-Hitlerian thugs. It is more than that too, a place that challenges the notion of Jewish naïveté in the face of annihilation. Says Freund, "Jews did not go like sheep to the slaughter."