I was profoundly moved to read this report in the New York Times.
A team of archaeologists and mapmakers say they have uncovered a forgotten tunnel that 80 Jews dug largely by hand as they tried to escape from a Nazi extermination site in Lithuania about 70 years ago.
. . .
From 1941 until 1944, tens of thousands of Jews from the nearby city of Vilnius, known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, were brought to Ponar and shot at close range. Their bodies were dumped into the pits and buried.
“I call Ponar ground zero for the Holocaust,” Dr. Freund said. “For the first time we have systematic murder being done by the Nazis and their assistants.” According to Dr. Freund, the events at the site took place about six months before the Nazis started using gas chambers elsewhere for their extermination plans.
An estimated 100,000 people, including 70,000 Jews, died at Ponar. Over four years, about 150 Lithuanian collaborators killed the prisoners — usually in groups of about 10. In 1943 when it became clear the Soviets were going to take over Lithuania, the Nazis began to cover up the evidence of the mass killings. They forced a group of 80 Jews to exhume the bodies, burn them and bury the ashes. At the time they were called the Leichenkommando, or “corpse unit,” but in the years that followed they were known as the Burning Brigade.
For months, the Jewish prisoners dug up and burned bodies. One account tells of a man who identified his wife and two sisters among the corpses. The group knew that once their job was finished, they, too, would be executed, so they developed an escape plan.
About half of the group spent 76 days digging a tunnel in their holding pit by hand and with spoons they found among the bodies. On April 15, 1944 — the last night of Passover when they knew the night would be darkest — the brigade crawled through the two-foot-square tunnel entrance and through to the forest.
The noise alerted the guards, who pursued the prisoners with guns and dogs. Of the 80, 12 managed to escape; 11 of them survived the war and went on to tell their stories, according to the researchers.
Dr. Freund and his team used the information from survivors’ accounts to search for the tunnel.
There’s more at the link. It’s well worth reading in full.
The work of the Sonderkommandos (of which the Leichenkommandos were part) was particularly sickening for those forced to take part. All of them were concentration camp inmates themselves. (A few photographs of their work survive, including the one below.)
You can read more here about the various Kommandos (work teams) in which Jewish and other concentration camp inmates were forced to serve. It’s a sickening record.
I can only say, God bless the members of the Lithuanian Leichenkommando for their determination to escape and tell the world of the atrocity they had witnessed. Less than 14% of them survived . . . but their success meant that the evil that was done in that country could not be concealed or covered up. It joins the abominable record of man’s inhumanity to man down the ages.
What makes me shake my head in depressed disbelief is that precisely the same inhumanity is at work today in the Middle East, but the world seems disinclined to do anything realistic to stop it. ISIS/ISIL is as brutal, genocidal and xenophobic as the Nazis ever were, if not more so. It’s a pity the world’s often-expressed determination to ensure that the Holocaust never happened again has not been sufficient to motivate more action to protect the victims of the Nazis’ latest successors.