There are few, if any stories of greater human desperation or human courage and resilience...certainly not in fiction, nor even in the nightmarish death camps of Sobibor, Treblinka, and Belzec. As one drives 10 km or so southwest of Vilnius, if one does not blink, you might see a white road sign with black lettering pointing to Panerai (Poneray). Follow the sign and a heavily damaged road past a Lithuanian village and along a rail siding. Eventually one comes to a beautiful but haunted forest, and a small house that is the museum for this mass extermination site. The museum is one small room that narrates the extermination of Lithuanian Jewry in the pits at Poneray.
In 1939, the Russian Army constructed 10 or so massive pits, up to 42 m across and 6 m or more deep, for installing large jet fuel storage tanks. In 1941, the Nazis attacked Russia, quickly pushed the Russians out of Lithuania, and began to use these giant tank foundations in there experiments on how to most efficiently exterminate an entire population. From 1941 to 1944, approximately 100,000 people, including 70,000 Jews (45%) of the entire population of Vilnius, and 30,000 Polish partisans, Russian officers, Catholic priests, and others, were executed by a bullet to the back of the head for adults, and an even more violent death for children. The bodies were disposed of in the tank foundations, with one pit alone containing 25,000 bodies.
By 1943, it was clear the war was turning against the Nazis. As in Sobibor and elsewhere, the senior Nazi command ordered the evidence to be erased. In 1944, the SS established a "Burning Brigade" to exhume the 100,000 bodies and burn them to ash. In the museum (and below) is a photograph of a ladder the brigade used to stack bodies and wood into a pyramid. A smaller replica of this ladder sits in Pit 6 where the burning brigade, between 80 and 100 Jews, lived.
The stone wall of Pit 6 was 4 m high. The workers were shackled at the ankles, intensively guarded, lived under the constant threat of death, and labored all day at the most grisly of tasks. And they knew, once their task was completed, they too would be killed. As such, against any possible chance of success, a small group of workers decided to tunnel out to freedom. Behind a false storage closet, for 76 nights, after working all day hauling and burning decomposing corpses, this small group of workers tunneled under the stone wall that was deeply incised to prevent any escape, they built supports to keep the dry sand from collapsing onto their 60 cm X 70 cm culvert, they detoured their tunnel away from other pits of corpses, they wired in a light bulb when their single candle would burn what little oxygen they had, and meanwhile roof collapses of the soft sand did occur. On April 13th they punched through the ground surface 32 m away from their starting point. On April 15th, at 9:30, all 100 or so workers made their break. It was Passover, the Jewish holiday of freedom.
They had hidden various tools they had found among the corpses to aid their break. Files were used to break the ankle shackles, pliers to cut the barbed wire fence. A compass for travel out of the dense woods. The cut shackles and breaking branches made a noise. Gun fire broke out. There was not one barbed wire fence, but two! And then a minefield that none of the workers knew of. Dogs. Machine gun fire. Trucks with more soldiers. Many were shot or blown up in the minefield. Some made it to the river where they could float downstream and evade the dogs. 11 survived to fight with the partisans, and live until the end of the war. The last of the survivors died 3 years ago.
Tuesday and Wednesday, June 8 and 9, Alastair and I, guided by Dr. Richard Freund from the University of Hartford, and Ken Ben Simon, have been using geophysics to locate other unexcavated pits, and most importantly, to find the tunnel. NOVA, the acclaimed documentary film maker, has been documenting our progress...and we have had great progress! We have been using ground penetrating radar and electrical resistivity tomography to "see" under the ground. We have been flying a drone over our various areas (but under the tree canopy!) to create photographic basemaps to overlay our geophysical results. Eric Johnson, back in Calgary, has stitched together our hundreds of drone photographs, and created micro-relief maps that we hope will show subtle changes in relief due to, for instance, settlement in a pit or collapse along a tunnel path.
We have some results...but we have been asked to keep things a bit quiet until an official announcement. You will be second to hear it all here.