I’m a WWII nut and a history minor, so the second I saw “tunnel” and “Lithuania,” my heart skipped several beats.

After whispers, rumors, and false leads, a team of archaeologists finally discovered one of the biggest mysteries and greatest escape stories of WWII.   Archaeologist Richard Freund, of the University of Hartford, led the team responsible for making the major breakthrough.  His work will be predominantly featured on a PBS special about the discovery next year.

The University of Hartford reports that the tunnel was created by about 80 prisoners trying to escape from a Lithuanian death camp in Ponar (now called Paneriai.)  Using only their hands and spoons, it took about 76 days to complete the 100 foot tunnel.  It is located inside a mass burial site.

Richard Freund of the University of Hartford. Image Credit: Ezra Wolfinger for NOVA

Richard Freund of the University of Hartford.
Image Credit: Ezra Wolfinger for NOVA

Dr. Freund calls Ponar “ground zero for the Holocaust,” because the site contains the remains of 100,000 executed prisoners.

When Russia began closing in on Lithuania in 1944, the Nazis forced prisoners to dig up the bodies and burn the evidence.  The prisoners were called the Leichenkommando, which means “corpse unit,” as well as the Burning Brigade.  Knowing that they would also be executed after completing their work, they plotted their escape.  On the last night of Passover, they crawled through the tunnel, but the noise alerted guards who immediately gave chase.  Only 11 lived to tell the tale.

For decades, the only proof of the tunnel’s existence was through the survivor’s testimonials.  For over 70 years, its existence remained one of the greatest mysteries of the war, but also served as a story of hope and human survival.

Dr. Freund is relieved to have found the tunnel in time, saying, “If we had never discovered the tunnel, people would have thought in another 20 years it was a myth, and they would have questioned – What do we really know happened?”  He says its discovery was like finding a “very-known needle in a haystack.”

Congratulations, Dr. Freund, for solving one of the greatest mysteries of WWII!

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