Team Led by Arts and Sciences Archaeologist Locates Escape Tunnel at Holocaust Burial Site
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Team Led by Arts and Sciences Archaeologist Locates Escape Tunnel at Holocaust Burial Site

Jewish prisoners dug a tunnel from this holding pit near Vilnius, Lithuania. Credit: Ezra Wolfinger for NOVA

Professors Richard Freund, University of Hartford (tan hat); Harry Jol, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (face obscured); and Philip Reeder, Duquesne University discuss where the next round of work will be conducted. Credit: Ezra Wolfinger for NOVA

An international team led by Arts and Sciences Professor of Jewish History and archaeologist Richard Freund has 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. Only 11 prisoners survived to tell the harrowing story of digging for 76 nights using only their hands, spoons and crude handmade tools. 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 also is director of the College’s Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies, likens the discovery to finding a very well-known 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.