When UW-Eau Claire faculty and geography students joined an international research team that located a tunnel prisoners used to escape from the Nazis in Lithuania during the Holocaust, they accomplished much more than simply finding a hidden passageway.
They helped to verify Holocaust survivors’ stories of their dramatic escape from an execution site where an estimated 100,000 people died during World War II.
“Our research helps to bring truth to what some people view as just stories,” James Erickson, a Blugold from Webster, says of the research team’s work to recover remnants of the city of Vilnius and the lands around it, an area in Lithuania first destroyed by the Nazis and later paved over by the Soviets.
Helping to verify the incredible and horrifying stories told by Holocaust survivors — like the story of the escape tunnel — becomes even more important as the years go by, says Dr. Harry Jol, a UW-Eau Claire geography professor who has been taking students with him to do research at historic Jewish sites around the world for 20 years.
“The Holocaust survivors are not going to be with us much longer,” says Jol, noting he plans to bring more student researchers to Lithuania this summer to continue their work. “Without verifying their stories, oral histories can change once they are gone. When we use scientific methods to verify their stories, it leaves no questions about what happened at these sites.”
For decades, Holocaust survivors told stories of Jewish prisoners digging an escape tunnel a few feet below ground at a Nazi execution site near the Lithuanian city of Vilnius.
The research team, led by Dr. Richard Freund, an archaeologist from the University of Hartford in Connecticut, used stories from survivors to help find the general location of the tunnel.
Last summer, the researchers — an international team that included Jol and his four students — finally were able to find and trace the narrow, 100-foot tunnel from its entrance in the holding pit to its exit in the nearby forest.
They also found previously unknown burial pits in the forest adjacent to the site.
The UW-Eau Claire team’s largest contribution to the project, Jol says, was providing the ground-penetrating radar and general geoscience background.
Using non-invasive radar and radio waves, they were able to trace the tunnel from its entrance to its exit, finally providing evidence to support survivor accounts of their escape.
Last June, the discovery of the escape tunnel and the stories behind it gained worldwide attention, with major stories in the New York Times, the Jerusalem Post, The Washington Post, National Public Radio and many other media outlets.
In February, Smithsonian magazine details the tunnel and its discovery in an article, “The Holocaust’s Great Escape: A remarkable discovery in Lithuania brings a legendary tale of survival back to life.”
The international research team’s work at the historic site will be back in the spotlight this spring when the PBS science series NOVA airs its new documentary, “Holocaust Escape Tunnel.” The film will premiere at 8 p.m. April 19 on PBS.
Prior to the NOVA documentary’s national release, Jol and three of his student researchers will be part of a panel discussion about the tunnel and its discovery during a special preview screening of the PBS film during a March conference in Pittsburgh.
The National Holocaust Museum recently asked to join them on the panel, Jol says, noting that three of the four student researchers will share their findings and experiences at the conference.
Jol and Alex Kleinschmidt, a German major from Muskego, also will talk about the project May 21 during a National Holocaust Remembrance Day event hosted by the Milwaukee Jewish Association.
“Our job as scientists is not only to verify the information, but also to get these stories out,” Jol says of the value of giving students opportunities to talk about their work and discovery.
Since the PBS documentary film crew already was on site filming last June when Jol and his students joined the team of geoscientists and geographers in Lithuania, the Blugolds knew they would be part of an international team of respected researchers and scholars that was doing important work.
Still, Jackie Seamans, a senior environmental geography major, says she was surprised by just how significant of a discovery the team made during the project.
“I did know that NOVA documentary staff was going to be there, but I had no idea that it would be this big of a find,” says Seamans. “It’s absolutely amazing, really. It’s such an interesting story behind the tunnel we have found … hearing their resilience, and how after losing everything in their life, they continued to fight and find a way out rather than just giving up. The story behind it is just really heart touching.”
From 1941-44, nearly 100,000 people, including 70,000 Jews, were brought to the Ponar site, where they were shot and buried. To cover the mass killings, survivors say that the Nazis forced prisoners to exhume the bodies, burn them and bury the ashes.
Recognizing that once the bodies were destroyed they, too, would be killed, survivors told of using their hands, spoons and other crude tools to dig an escape tunnel.
After 76 nights of digging, on April 15, 1944 — when they knew the night would be darkest — the prisoners climbed into a small tunnel entrance and crawled through the tunnel to the nearby forest.
Of the 80 prisoners, just 12 were successful in escaping that night, and only 11 survived World War II to tell their stories.
Knowing their research provided evidence to help verify the survivors’ stories of those events is an incredible feeling, says Seamans.
“The most amazing experience happened when we heard the project leader received a phone call from the daughter of one of the survivors,” Seamans says. “Through tears, she thanked our group for validating her father’s story, and said she does not plan to return to the site because of the terrible killings that happened there, but she was happy.”
The research team also met a woman who was among those who helped to rescue the prisoners who escaped through the tunnel that night and were hiding in the forest.
“She told us that they heard over the radio that a group had escaped from Ponar and was being hunted by the Nazi soldiers,” Seamans says of the woman’s story. “They quickly went out to look for them to bring them to safety. She also verified the number of people who had escaped, 12, a number previously disputed.
“The emotion she showed during the conversation will stick with me forever.”
Hearing those first-person accounts while doing research in the city and surrounding areas where those events took place was a difficult but powerful experience, Seamans says.
“The Holocaust is something that we only read about in books,” Seamans says. “We only read about the consequences and the emotions these victims had. Seeing it in person puts everything into perspective and completely blows the readings out of the water.
“Though listening to the many, many horrific stories from the Holocaust in Vilnius was the hardest part of the project, it was also the most informative and something I will never forget.”
Kleinschmidt agrees, noting it also was inspiring to be part of something that was meaningful to so many people throughout the world.
“It really gives the Jewish people, especially those still in Lithuania, a story of hope and perseverance that they can all lean on and strengthen their community, not just for the Lithuanian Jews, but for the Jews all over the world,” says Kleinschmidt. “It’s very important to them.
“This is a motivation to keep doing projects like this, to keep contributing to the community around the world, and to do something not just for myself.”