By Stacey Dresner
HARTFORD – The June 17 issue of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger covered the efforts of Dr. Richard Freund, director of The Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford to excavate burial pits at the site of the infamous Rasu Prison near Vilnius, Lithuania.
This week Freund returned to Hartford after two weeks in Ponary – a suburb of Vilna — during which he and his crew finally uncovered a tunnel in one of the burial pits that was used by a group of Jews to escape the Nazis during the last night of Passover, April 15, 1944.
During an interview at the University of Hartford’s Museum of Jewish Civilization on Friday, Dr. Freund called the story of the escape tunnel almost “too mythic to believe.”
The Rasu Prison in Ponar was the headquarters of the Nazi commander and the Rasu internment site for “special prisoners.” It was also the location of seven burial pits, the last resting place of an estimated 100,000 people, including 70,000 Jews, who were shot and murdered by the Nazis and Lithuanian collaborators.
Freund and a group of geophysicists spent two weeks at the Ponary site, using specialized ground penetrating radar (GPR) and Electrical Resistivity Tomography (ERT), which can be employed for non-invasive mapping of archeological sites. Freund and his colleagues were able to locate burial pits and the beginning and end of the escape tunnel, which had been dug during 76 days in 1944 by 80 prisoners who came to be known as the “Burning Brigade.”
Given the horrific task of hiding the evidence of the Nazi exterminations from the approaching Soviets, the Burning Brigade were forced to dig up corpses from the pits, burn the bodies, and then rebury the ashes. Knowing they too were inevitably going to be killed, the “Burning Brigade” the participated in what Freund called “one of the great Jewish escapes of the Holocaust.”
The prisoners used spoons, and any other tools they could find to dig the tunnel, which is located around 12 meters below the ground in some parts. They chose the last day of Passover, between 9 and 10 p.m., to make their escape because it was the darkest night of the year.
Only 11 of the 80 prisoners were able to make it through the tunnel to safety in the nearby forest; the others were shot by Nazi’s as they tried to escape.
Freund said that the tunnel itself is about 70 centimeters wide “the size of an emaciated human being.”
“That was what made it so difficult for people to find,” he explained. “But using these different [scientific] techniques…helped to identify metal, wood, and other materials that were different from the surrounding sand.”
Freund said that they killings in Lithuania began before “The Final Solution.” The first of the exterminations in the forests of Vilna occurred in July of 1941, six months before the Wannsee Conference was held to discuss and plan the annihilation of the Jews through extermination camps.
Finding the burial pits was emotional for Freund and his colleagues, but Freund said that for him, it was also about the loss of the rich Jewish community of Vilna.
“It was not just the killing of people,” he said. “Vilna especially was known as
the ‘Jerualem of Lithuanian.’ There were artists, writers, poets, and there were secularists — they were not all pious Jews. They weren’t all just people that were tradesmen. They were journalists and they were people that were dedicated to all different strata of life…it was a real place of high culture and 500 years of Lithuanian Jewry was wiped out in a very short amount of time. Its sadder, I think, than just understanding that people died.”
PBS’s NOVA has been following the excavations of the tunnel and the Rasu Prison burials, as well as the Great Synagogue of Vilna, which was unearthed last year by Dr. Freund and colleagues. A documentary on the project will released next year.
Freund 2 online: Dr. Richard Freund, talking about his project at the Ponar tunnel, which has been found near Vilna, Lithuania. Next to him is Rachel Polinsky of Avon, a Clark University student who worked on the project.
Tunnel: Jewish prisoners dug an escaped tunnel from this burial pit into the nearby forest.