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The Descendants of Hope

The families of the survivors of the Ponary Tunnel Escape reunite in Tel Aviv

This past spring, an international team, led by University of Hartford Professor of Jewish History and archaeologist Richard Freund, discovered a 100-foot-long underground tunnel made by 80 Jews who attempted a courageous escape from the extermination pits at Paneriai, Lithuania, on the last night of Passover in April 1944. Known as the “Burning Brigade,” the 80 Jews were assigned the task of burning the bodies of the 100,00 people — including 70,000 Jews, who were killed in the burial pits at Ponary between 1941-1944.

The story of the “Burning Brigade” is indeed stunning. The 80 Jews who were in the pit knew that when they completed their work for the Nazis they would be the last victims. And so as they worked burning bodies all day long, at night a select group went into the tunnel and dug with spoons, their hands and crude handmade tools, to extend their tunnel beyond the two barbed wire fences that separated their pit from the forest. Secrecy was paramount. The tunnel could not be discovered. For that reason, it was only on the night before the escape that the main group revealed to the rest the plan.

Digging for 76 days, the small group was able to finish right before Easter Sunday, April 13. But a rabbi who was also in the pit told them that April 15, the very last night of Passover, would be the darkest night of April. The best night for an escape in the brisk April forest outside Vilna. And so, that is when they escaped. On the last night of the Jewish holiday of liberation.

Only 11 prisoners survived to tell the harrowing story of the Ponary Escape Tunnel. Although the entrance to the tunnel was known, the exact location of the escape tunnel, located near the city of Vilnius, remained a mystery until early June.

Calling it one of the “great Jewish escapes” of the Holocaust, Freund, who is director of the University’s Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies, likens the discovery to finding a needle in a haystack. Using noninvasive archaeological methods to protect the sanctity of the resting places of the approximately 100,000 people buried there, Freund and the team found the tunnel, as well as previously unknown burial pits in the forest adjacent to the site.

The research team successfully located the contours and direction of the escape tunnel and rediscovered the Great Synagogue of Vilnius by using the noninvasive electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) technique. The synagogue, established in the 16th and 17th centuries, was a five-story building and compound and was home to the “Gaon of Vilna,” the greatest rabbinic scholar of the premodern and modern periods. It was believed the structure was destroyed in the Soviet era, but in reality the main prayer area was preserved more than six feet below ground. The award-winning science series NOVA, produced by WGBH Boston, has exclusive access to the excavation, which will be the subject of a documentary to air on PBS in 2017.

Freund initiated the investigation of the Lithuanian archaeological sites with geophysicists from Worley Parsons, Inc.’s Advisian Division in Canada, and is working with the Antiquities Authority of Israel, The Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, Duquesne University, and University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, as well as students and staff.

Recently, Freund and two of his colleagues met with the descendents of the Ponary escapees. Here, he recounts one of those meetings and reflects on the historical implications of the tunnel’s discovery.


By Dr. Richard Freund

On Sunday, August 7, my colleague from the Lithuania excavations project, Dr. Philip Reeder of Duquesne University, and my colleague from the Antiquities Authority of Israel, Dr. Jon Seligman, and I met with the descendants of the Ponary Tunnel escapees — a group I call: the “descendants of hope.” There were only 11 escapees who survived the war and none of the original survivors are alive today (Mordechai Zeidel, the last survivor died in 2008); but their children and grandchildren continue to tell the story of their near miraculous escape to the world. The PBS science series, NOVA, filmed an entire documentary about our work in Lithuania and also was with us in Israel when we met for the first time the descendants of these survivors and told them about the discovery of the tunnel.

The encounter with the children and grandchildren of the escapees in Israel was overwhelming for me personally because in most cases in archaeology we deal with events and sites that are far in the past. This was different. The tunnel escape captured the imagination of people all over the world. Our work on the Great Synagogue was featured in the (ultra-orthodox) Haredi media as well.

For Israelis, these escapees represent the very essence of Israeli values. The courage to dream and “Hatikvah” – “The Hope” — that never fades is the national anthem of Israel.

Finding some of the escapees’ family members in Israel and hearing them talk about what their parents and grandparents told them of this horrific event was a moment in which I lived their histories, and I attempted to tell them about how and why we found this tunnel.

Most of us remember that last scene from Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” when the descendants of all of the people that Oskar Schindler saved gathered around his tomb in Jerusalem. It is moving first because it demonstrates a central pillar of Jewish values: “the one who saves one life saves an entire world.” For me, our discovery in Ponary is about how when we save the history of one person, we save that history for all of the descendants.


The Testimonies

freund tunnel entrance

The entrance to the Ponary Tunnel.

I have spent the better part of my teaching over the past four decades trying to convince students that reading the testimonies of ancient people matters. This past summer I became convinced that oral and written testimonies carry with them important details that can only be understood if you take the time to listen to the words and spend time searching for the physical evidence of these testimonies. This past summer we were invited by the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum in Vilnius to search for the existence of the escape tunnel used by the “Burning Brigade,” a group of Jews assigned by the Nazis to one of the most horrific assignments of the Holocaust: to burn the bodies of the people killed there. It was an attempt to cover up another part of the Holocaust that took place not in extermination camps but in burial pits in the forest outside of Vilnius. The story of the escape through a 100-foot long tunnel that was constructed over 76 days in 1944 captured the imagination of people all over the world and was featured in hundreds of newspapers worldwide and in most major media. It was an overwhelming testament to the worldwide interest in the details of the Holocaust, which speak not only to the death and killing but the hope and courage of the Jews in the most horrific circumstances.

As we worked in the forest this past summer and found the sections of the tunnel, my students, who were working in the field with us, asked me a simple question about how we choose to do these types of projects — e.g., the synagogues of Spain, Atlantis, the Dead Sea Caves, the city of Bethsaida and Yavne, Sobibor, the Church of the Annunciation. After all, they seem to be disconnected from one another in the history of civilization. Why do we do these projects — especially those related to the Holocaust? To me there is only one good answer. As an academic, I can say we do these projects in order to learn more about Jewish History and the Holocaust in particular than we knew before. As a Jew, I can say it links me with the golden chain of Jewish history and that we feel some sense of responsibility for our forbearers.

The Holocaust, History, and Science

The history of Ponary cannot be properly told without our noninvasive archaeological approach. We found in the forest of Ponary not only an escape tunnel of the “Burning Brigade,” but also an undesignated/unmarked pit with the burned remains of thousands of people (the newly discovered pit is 72 feet in diameter and 12 feet in depth). Identifying the area as a burial ground for all of these “unknown” people helps families who suffered a loss to know that we continue to remember their loss. Our noninvasive method has the added advantage of not desecrating the victims in their final resting place.

The descendants we met with in Tel Aviv were also interested in our efforts to excavate the Great Synagogue. We had a team of six American students and six Israelis working together with us this summer. Most of the Israelis had direct family connections with Vilna and the daily conversations with our students and staff was very inspiring. The education in the field of these two groups together working on the Great Synagogue and in the Ponary forest was very powerful.

The Encounters

Even though the NOVA documentary is about the science we used to uncover the tunnel, ultimately, as I tell all of our students: “archaeology at the end of the day is about more than just coins, glass, pottery and architecture-artifacts. It is about people.” In this case NOVA felt that it is this connection with the people of the tunnel that is so special and will be featured in the documentary.

Sabina Domba, the daughter of escapee Isaac Dugin, and Hannah Amir, the daughter of escapee Mordechai Zeidel, were two of the most well-known of the 11 testimonies that I had been studying for the past year. Here is a brief sample of the story of Isaac Dugin that Sabrina shared with me.

Isaac Dugin: Master Planner

It was an emotional moment for me to meet Dr. Sabina Domba, the daughter of escapee Isaac Dugin, because she was one of the people who took down her father’s testimony for the first time. I listened to her tell me the story about her father like I was listening to it for the first time. It turns out that Dugim, Zalman Matzkin, Mordechai Zeidel and David Kanterovitch would meet annually on April 20 in the 1980s and 1990s to remember the escape.

Isaac Dugin was the first one out of the tunnel on that fateful night. An electrician before the war, he lived with his family in the ghetto when it was formed in 1941. He had an all-important work permit that saved his life. Prior to the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto on Sept. 23, 1943, he prepared a malina (hiding place) for his extended family of 20. Thanks to his planning, his family survived but were later turned in by a neighbor.

His family was sent late in 1943 to their deaths at Ponary. Dugin (I learned from Sabina that the original spelling of his family name was Dugim and he changed it to Dugin after the war because it was more Polish sounding), together with his father and brothers-in-law, was attached to a group of 40 men from Vilna that originally went daily to Ponary to burn the bodies. Later, he and his father and brothers-in-law were housed in the pit where we discovered the escape tunnel under the wall.

Dugin also has the distinction of having figured out a complex logistical issue for building the tunnel. Because they were digging underground with little oxygen into the confines of the 2-foot by 2-foot tunnel, the men could not use candles (that used up the precious oxygen!) to light their way as they dug all night long. Dugin figured out a way of running an electrical line to a bulb that lit their way as they dug all night. He was the first one out of the tunnel and his work on the electrical poles at Ponary allowed him to see the problems that the escapees would encounter as they left the tunnel.

Dugin, who continued to work as an electrician after the war, lived in Poland until 1969 under the name Ignacy Dugin. In 1969, he moved to Israel with his two daughters. He was chief electrician for Electra, a large concern in Israel, until his retirement at age 76.

The NOVA Documentary

The NOVA documentary — tentatively titled “Lost Vilna” — will be broadcast worldwide in April 2017, close to the time of the escape. A Hartford event in conjunction with the premiere is being planned. In addition, Freund is currently at work on a related book entitled Rhodes and Vilna: The ‘Other’ Jerusalems and the Archaeology of the Holocaust (Rowman&Littlefield, 2017).

Dr. Richard Freund will discuss “The Secret Escape Tunnel and Lessons of the Human Spirit from the Ponary Burial Pits of Lithuania on 9/11,” on Sunday, Sept. 11, 10 a.m., at Beth El Temple, 2626 Albany Ave., West Hartford. For information: (860) 233-9696.

CAP: At the Tel Aviv reunion of the descendents of those who survived the Ponary Tunnel Brigade Escape: (l to r) Dr. Hayim Matzkin (son of Zalman Matzkin), Miki Kantor (chairwoman of the Association of Jews from Vilna and Vicinity), Hannah Domba (granddaughter of Isaac Dugin), Sabina Domba (daughter of Isaac Dugin), Dr. Richard Freund, Sharon Rachel (daughter of Shlomo Gol), Dr. Jon Seligman, Drorit Zohar (daughter of David Kanterovitch), Ruth Kanterovitch (daughter of David Kanterovitch), and Hannah Amir (daughter of Mordechai Zeidel).

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