Facing certain death, the inmates took the only tools they had — spoons, plates, screwdrivers, their bare hands — and started digging. Could they possibly fashion a tunnel that would lead to freedom from the Nazis?
Did the desperate members of the Burning Brigade really elude their Nazi tormentors by crawling to freedom on that last night of Pesach in April 1944? In 2016 an international team of archeologists came to Ponar to find out. Armed with up-to-date alphabet-soup-sounding equipment such as GPR and ERT they began the laborious process of testing the soil searching for telltale inconsistencies that might signal the tunnel’s presence below the earth. Suddenly a ghostly figure appeared amidst the trees an elderly woman who seemed to know exactly what these archeologists were looking for. (Photos: Lior Mizrachi Ezra Wolfinger for NOVA)
or decades the escape tunnel at Ponar Lithuania had largely been the stuff of legend.
In the thick of the Second World War Jewish members of a forced-labor brigade had supposedly dug the tunnel using spoons screwdrivers and even their bare hands. They were members of the so-called Burning Brigade dozens of Jews assigned to the cruel and grisly task of exhuming and burning the bodies of more than 70 000 Jews who had been executed at Ponar outside Vilna by the Nazis.
But did the tunnel really exist? Did the desperate members of the Burning Brigade really elude their Nazi tormentors by crawling to freedom on that last night of Pesach in April 1944?
In 2016 an international team of archeologists came to Ponar to find out. Armed with up-to-date alphabet-soup-sounding equipment such as GPR and ERT they began the laborious process of testing the soil searching for telltale inconsistencies that might signal the tunnel’s presence below the earth.
Suddenly a ghostly figure appeared amidst the trees an elderly woman who seemed to know exactly what these archeologists were looking for.
“I was a partisan in 1944 ” she told them. “I was the one who received the escapees. The Germans had radioed that they were looking for them and they’d give a reward to anyone who found them. So we went out to look for them.
“After three days we found them — they were in two groups — and brought them to the partisan camp. No one could stand next to them because they smelled of death. Until today I can still smell them. The first thing we did was burn their clothes. But even their skin smelled of rotting bodies.”
The Road to Ponar
“Many roads lead to Ponar but no road leads back” wrote Yiddish author Shmerke Kaczerginski in 1943. His lyrics for the song “Shtiler Shtiler” (“Quiet Quiet”) composed by Aleksander Volkoviski was written in memory of the mass murders committed at Ponar and became one of the Holocaust’s best-known songs.
Kaczerginski and Volkoviski were both born and raised in Vilna and witnessed the destruction of the city’s Jewish kehillah a community that could trace its roots back to the Middle Ages. One of the Jewish world’s most important centers for Torah study since the 16th century as well as the home of the Vilna Gaon Vilna was affectionately known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania. Its famous Shulhoyf (synagogue courtyard) housed not only the Great Synagogue but also twelve other synagogues the offices of communal institutions such as the beis din and chevra kaddisha a bathhouse and mikveh kosher meat stalls a library and even a prison. Vilna was 40 percent Jewish before the war and in addition to the Shulhoyf there were more than 100 synagogues as well as many yeshivos serving the city’s prewar population of approximately 70 000 Jews.
After the Nazis occupied Vilna in July 1941 German troops aided by their Lithuanian counterparts began to transport Jewish men to the Ponar forest located about six miles south of the city and shoot them. In September 1941 the Germans liquidated a ghetto they had established in Vilna for those who couldn’t work and these Jews were taken to Ponar and executed as well. By the end of 1941 more than 40 000 Jewish men women and children had been murdered there.
Before the war Ponar had been the site of a holiday resort. But the forested area was also the site of almost a dozen 20-foot-deep pits dug by the Red Army to store fuel tanks for a nearby airfield. When the Germans took over they turned these ready-made pits into mass graves. Eyewitnesses have described the victims’ final hour: After the Jews were transported to Ponar they were forced to undress and then blindfolded with a piece of cloth ripped from their clothing. Walking single file with one hand on the shoulder or arm of the person before them they were led to a pit in groups of 10 or 20 and shot. After the bodies fell into the pit a thin layer of sand was shoveled over them. Then the next group was led to the pit and murdered.
The Nazis continued to use Ponar as a killing field during the following year. When the large ghetto in Vilna was liquidated in September 1943 many of the Jews were brought to Ponar and murdered. Tens of thousands of Poles and Soviet prisoners of war were also murdered there. But by the end of 1943 the tide was turning. With Soviet troops advancing the Germans decided to cover up what they had done. But how does one destroy the silent testimony of nearly 100 000 victims of Nazi atrocities?
The Burning Brigade “The Germans decided to burn the bodies that were buried there,” explains Dr. Jon Seligman, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Excavations, Surveys & Research Department and a member of the international team that went to Ponar in 2016.
Despite his having been interviewed many times about Ponar, his calm professional demeanor can’t quite hide the emotions being stirred up by having to recall yet again what happened in that gehinnom. While his grandparents left Lithuania for South Africa before the war, many members of his extended family remained. “Knowing that my grandfather’s siblings and their families had been murdered at Ponar, I wasn’t enthusiastic about working there,” he admits.
But he does feel a need to speak about what happened there, and so he continues, “They brought to Ponar Jews who were captured in Vilna after the liquidation of the main ghetto — 76 men and four women. The women were there to cook. Most of them were Jews who had lived in Vilna or the surrounding areas, but some were Red Army soldiers who had been taken prisoner and who were suspected of being Jewish.
“They had to dig up the bodies, which the Germans, in their methodical way, counted one by one. The bodies were piled up on pyres and burnt. There were usually 1,000 bodies on the pyre, and the burning would take a number of days. The ashes and bones were then ground up and mixed with sand, which was distributed throughout the forest. That was the process.”
The Jews assigned to this gruesome task became known to historians as the Burning Brigade. They lived at the site, “home” being one of the already emptied execution pits. A ladder was let down in the morning, so they could climb out of the pit and begin their work; at night, after all the prisoners had returned to the pit, the ladder was removed. In addition, their legs were shackled, making it impossible to climb out of the pit and escape during the night.
The kitchen was also in the pit, and unlike many others who worked in Nazi slave labor camps, the members of the Burning Brigade were well fed. They were also supplied with alcohol and cigarettes. The reason for the generous rations was simple: The Germans wanted the work done quickly, and they knew the prisoners would work faster on a full stomach.
Yet the group had no illusions about what would happen to them after they finished their work in the pits. They knew too much. Therefore, they would be executed and burned too.
“They decided to build a tunnel to escape,” says Seligman. “They didn’t have tools, so they used things like spoons. Because the soil there is very sandy, they were able to dig.”
They were fortunate that one of the group, Yuli Farber, had been an engineer in the Red Army. He designed the tunnel, including the wood scaffolding used to support it so it wouldn’t cave in. Because the lack of air was a problem, they had to keep changing the team that was digging inside — one person dug, while the other removed the dirt from the tunnel — a process that went on throughout the night. Lack of light was yet another obstacle. They had candles, but they kept going out.
“One of the prisoners, Yitzchak Dugin, was an electrician by trade,” Seligman continues. “He was the electrician for the whole camp. There was lighting in the kitchen. He managed to get hold of pieces of wire and, connecting them to the wires in the kitchen, was able to bring light into the tunnel.”
The group’s objective was to dig a tunnel from their pit to the adjacent one, which had already been emptied. From there they planned to make a run for the barbed wire fence that surrounded the camp. On the last night of Pesach, April 15, 1944, they were ready to put their plan into action.
“They divided themselves into groups,” Seligman explains. “The order of who left first was determined by how much effort the person had put into digging the tunnel. Once they were inside the tunnel, they filed off their chains. Then they went running toward the fence, but somebody stepped on something that made a sound and the Germans opened fire in all directions. Of the 80 people who were supposed to go through the tunnel — and we’re not sure how many actually managed to do it — we think only 12 or 15 made it outside the camp. Only 11 survived the war.”
The Stench of Death
Most of those who escaped went to fight with the partisans, whose hideout was in the forest. After the war, most of the survivors went to Eretz Yisrael, although one, Shlomo Gol, eventually settled in Florida, and Yuli Farber went to live in Moscow. The children of some of the survivors were recently interviewed for a documentary about the Ponar escape tunnel produced by NOVA, a science television program, which was broadcast on PBS in the spring of 2017.
Chana Amir, daughter of survivor Motke Zeidel, said that what she remembers the most about her father was that he was always washing his hands. She recalls her father telling her, “We were stinking from the smell of the bodies. And we ate with the hands that we worked with on the bodies, like we were animals.”
But Zeidel, who was the youngest member of the Burning Brigade and who was number five in line to escape, had also used his hands to dig away the sand, when there was no spoon or other utensil available. “After a whole day of burning the bodies, he went into the tunnel to dig,” says Amir.
Zalman Matzkin, another member of the Burning Brigade, had the harrowing experience of discovering his dead wife’s body among the corpses he had to dig up and burn. His son, Chaim Matzkin, thinks his father might have seen the bodies of his two children, as well.
The elder Matzkin told his son about Ponar and the family he had had before the war when Chaim Matzkin was in high school, telling the teenager, “You need to know.” Thus, Chaim learned about how his father, along with the others, was first ordered to chop down trees in the forest — without being told why. It was only after the Germans ordered them to exhume the bodies and burn them on the pyres constructed from the logs they had previously cut down that the prisoners, realizing they would be murdered in the end too, began to desperately make plans to escape.
After discussing several alternatives, it was decided that their best chance lay with digging a tunnel out of their pit. Not everybody was happy with the idea. “They didn’t think that it would succeed,” says Chaim Matzkin, recalling his father’s words. “But there was a smaller number of people who decided that was the only way. And he said the more they dug, the more people joined.”
The elder Matzkin recalled using his spoon and plate to dig. Others mention also using a screwdriver or whatever small implement they could find. But time was running out. Soon there would be no one left to burn, except themselves.
“They were looking for the darkest night,” says Matzkin. “And the darkest night was on the seventh day of Pesach.” Having decided that this would be the day of their escape, they waited for sundown. Although none of them were religious, one of them knew some prayers, “… so they prayed together with him.”
But just seconds later the Germans started shooting. “There was light like midday… There was so much light, they didn’t know where to run.”
Zalman Matzkin was shot in the leg. But like Motke Zeidel, he was able to make his way to the partisans.
How did the prisoners manage to dig a tunnel for more than three months without the Germans noticing anything amiss? For one thing, what did they do with the dirt they removed?
According to Avraham Gol, his father, Shlomo Gol, was the liaison between the prisoners and the Germans. Shlomo Gol asked the Germans for lumber to place around the walls of the pit where the prisoners lived to make the pit more livable. The Germans agreed. The prisoners left a separation between the original walls and the new ones that was large enough for them to dump the dirt they had removed from the tunnel.
When Avraham learned about his father’s leadership role during the war, he says he was surprised. The father he knew was a withdrawn man, saddened not only by what he had experienced at Ponar, but also by memories of an entire world that was lost. Shlomo Gol could recall the Yamim Noraim at Vilna’s Great Synagogue, when, he said, people would be standing outside, circling the synagogue, and praying in unison with those seated inside. “He said it was some sight to behold,” says Avraham. “My father felt that it was completely lost. He said the Germans seemed to destroy it completely.”
Out of the Ashes
Seligman’s work in Lithuania has its roots in a 2013 trip, when he and his father visited places associated with their family. “We’re from the shtetlach, not the big city,” he explains. “We visited places located in the triangle that is now Belarus, Latvia, and Lithuania. We also visited Vilna, of course, and I saw they were doing investigative work on the Great Synagogue, which had been partially destroyed by the Germans and demolished by the Soviets. I made contact with Dr. Zenonas Baubonis, the Lithuanian archeologist in charge of the work, and I told him this sounded like it could be a great opportunity to do a joint project. We obviously have an interest because of the past of the place, and the Lithuanians have an interest because they’re the present custodians of the site.”
Seligman returned to Vilna in 2015, this time not as a tourist but as an archeologist. Along with Baubonis and Professor Richard Freund of the University of Hartford, Seligman used Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) to better understand the underground space of the synagogue, as a preliminary to doing more excavations. Because an elementary school stands on about 60 percent of what once were the Great Synagogue and Shulhoyf, they couldn’t just take out shovels and dig.
“GPR sends radio waves into ground,” Seligman explains. “When it hits an object, the wave bounces back like any other radar and then you can read the signal — which requires interpretation. The interpretation of the signal requires professionals, and even then it’s a matter of speculation of what it all means.”
While they were exploring the underground remains, the team was contacted by the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, which maintains a small museum at Ponar. In 2004 Lithuanian archeologists had done work in the pit that housed the Burning Brigade and discovered an entrance to … somewhere. But the archeologists couldn’t find the rest of the tunnel. And so the doubts about the tunnel’s existence persisted. Perhaps a new team of archeologists would have more luck.
Seligman and the rest of the archeological team chose to work with non-invasive equipment, rather than shovels and picks, to preserve the sanctity of the site. They therefore came equipped with their GPR sensors, along with another relatively new technology, Electrical Resistivity Tomography, or ERT.
“Basically, all the techniques we used come from ones developed for mineral and oil companies, because that’s where the money is and the equipment is very expensive,” says Seligman. “In the pictures it looks like the team members are wearing ordinary backpacks, but each one of them has $200,000 worth of equipment inside.
“The idea of ERT is to put electrodes into the ground, in a line, and pass electricity through the electrodes, which then go into the ground. This judges the resistivity of the soil — in other words, where there is resistance to the electrical current. You’re looking for differences in the composition of the soil, for example, differences in humidity.”
And find differences, they did. According to Seligman, when the ERT results of the Ponar pit that housed the escapees were fed into their computer program, “The tunnel came up immediately. It was very, very clear because the consistency of the soil within the tunnel was different from the background. The soil had been disturbed and so it was different.”
Moving their equipment from place to place, they could map out the entire path of the 100-foot-long tunnel.
“It was very exciting,” Seligman recalls. “It was every emotional as well.”
The New York Times agreed, proclaiming the story the scientific discovery of the year. “I think it got this attention for two reasons,” says Seligman. “First, it’s an amazing human story. Second was the utilization of scientific techniques and seeing how they produce results. If we had discovered a tunnel used by a badger, for instance, no one would have been excited. But because of the nature of the story, it generated a lot of interest.”
That interest helped Seligman locate Chana Amir, who left a comment on an online article about the tunnel and later introduced him to the families of some of the other survivors. “Having contact with the families gave faces to the story — not only the faces of the escapees but also the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who wouldn’t be alive if not for the escape. It made the story very human.”
The Road Back
While Seligman returned to Vilna this summer to continue work at the Great Synagogue, he says there isn’t yet a decision about excavating the escape tunnel at Ponar. “That’s the decision of the custodians of the site, the Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum,” he says.
There was a tragic ending to the Ponar story, he adds. “After the escape, the Germans brought other Jews to finish the work. It made a difference for the 11 who survived the war, but it didn’t stop what the Germans were doing.”
Whatever his feelings about possibly excavating a site that evokes so many strong emotions, Seligman seems happy to have played a part in vindicating the testimony of the survivors of the Burning Brigade. And when he pulls up a photo on his computer screen of the Burning Brigade at work — the only one in existence, to our knowledge — he points to a man in the photo like he’s a long-lost friend.
“The stories of the escapees tended to repeat themselves,” he comments. “‘I was found in the ghetto. I was taken to prison. Then I was taken to the camp.’ But the story of this person, Avraham Blaser, is unusual. He escaped from Ponar twice.”
Blaser first arrived at Ponar as a Jew about to be executed. But even though he was shot, he wasn’t killed. He managed to crawl out of the pit and he returned to the Vilna ghetto, where his wife and child remained. Since he was officially dead, he no longer had the all-important work permit that often meant the difference between life and starving to death. But somehow the resourceful Blaser managed. And when the ghetto was being liquidated, he managed to hide his family with a gentile friend living in Vilna. Then for some reason Blaser returned to the ghetto, where he was captured and brought to Ponar a second time, this time as one of the Burning Brigade.
“Blaser was one of the escapees,” says Seligman, “but he didn’t stay in the forest with the partisans. He went back to Vilna, and he was very much a cat with nine lives — on the way he stepped on a mine that didn’t explode — and found his wife and child. They all managed to survive the war. They went to Israel in 1950, where they had one more child. He passed away in 1953.”
Who shall live and who shall die? It may be months before Rosh Hashanah, but you can feel the question hovering in the air.
“And you wonder,” as Avraham Gol remarked about his father and his friends, the other escapees from Ponar, “… after what they had gone through, how could they even think that there would be some kind of normalcy left for them?”
But rebuild their lives they did, a testimony to the inextinguishable spark that burns within every Jewish soul.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 665)