Calgary geophysicist part of team that discovered secret escape tunnel at Holocaust massacre site

A Calgary geophysicist was part of team that recently uncovered a secret tunnel dug by Jewish prisoners at a Holocaust massacre site in a forest in Lithuania.

Drones and radar used to find 30-metre long tunnel dug by Nazi prisoners in forest in Lithuania

Calgary geophysicist, Alastair McClymont, uses electric currents to help map a Holocaust burial site in the Ponary forest in Lithuania. (Alastair McClymont, Paul Bauman)

A Calgary geophysicist was part of team that recently uncovered a secret tunnel dug by Jewish prisoners at a Holocaust massacre site in a forest in Lithuania.

Alastair McClymont, who works at WorleyParsons, was one of two Calgary geophysicists asked to be part of the project undertaken by the Israel Antiquities Authority and the University of Hartford. 

This phase of the project involved trying to determine the exact location of a secret tunnel that was dug by hand by Nazi prisoners during the Holocaust. 

The roughly 300-metre by 300-metre area in the forest where the team was working, contains a series of circular pits that were used to bury the bodies or ashes of people killed by the Nazis. It's believed that between 1941 and 1944, 100,000 people, mostly Jews, were executed and buried in what is referred to as the Ponary Massacre. 

Over the years, tales of a tunnel started to emerge but no one was sure of its exact location.

Locating the tunnel

Though the team, from Canada, the U.S., Israel and Lithuania, had some idea where the tunnel was, finding and because of the sensitivity of the site, it would require, non-invasive tools, such as radar and drones.

"We had some evidence of where the tunnel was in this circular pit about four metres deep. And we had some general idea where the tunnel would be," said McClymont.

"We used a method called electrical resistivity tomography (ERT)  and that involved putting electrical current into the ground and mapping changes … changes in soil type or different objects in the ground, including a tunnel."

Paul Bauman, a geophysicist, operates a a drone, used to help get images from a mass burial site from the Holocaust in Lithuania. (Alastair McClymont, Paul Bauman)

Drones flown above the forest floor were used to detect and map depressions and changes in the ground below.

Tunnel was only hope

Once the Nazis realized they were losing the war, they needed to destroy evidence of the atrocities.

"They used 80 captives and kept them in a pit, and their daily job was to dig up the bodies, many of them relatives of the prisoners, burn the bodies and then get rid of the ashes," said McClymont.

Knowing they'd be executed themselves, the prisoners started digging a tunnel in the hopes of escaping.

Only 11 people survived. 

A pile of memorial stones with the names of people killed during the Ponar massacre lay at a base of tree in the Ponary forest. (Paul Bauman)

Over the years, the story of the escape has been patched together and the secret tunnel in the middle of the forest slowly came to light.

Compelling accounts of the survivors are housed in a small nondescript museum in the forest, says McClymont. One story that most struck him was that of a Polish journalist who hid at the edge of the forest and documented on paper the day-to-day events of the captives and the Nazis. He'd bury his notes in his garden. They were dug up after the war, and transcribed in the 1990s, once Lithuania had been liberated from Russia.

Digging with spoons

"Because [these] people survived, we had a historical account of the tunnel but no idea where it was," says McClymont.

One account of the escape on April 10, 1944, describes how the first group of people to emerge from the tunnel were detected when a Nazi guard heard the snap of a twig in the forest. The rest of the prisoners were then either gunned down or killed by landmines.

Historical accounts revealed to the team that the tunnel was at least 30 metres long and about two to two-and-half metres deep — all dug by hand.

"Obviously, these prisoners weren't given spades to dig this tunnel. They actually salvaged tools from the bodies they were exhuming, including spoons ... And they just used their hands and spoons to dig through the sand, and they had hide the sand itself."

Alastair McClymont uses ground penetrating radar to map a burial site, while a cameran shoots footage for a documentary that will be made about the Ponar massacre. (Alastair McClymont, Paul Bauman)

Rare opportunity

It's not so unusual for a team of geophysicists to be asked to do this type of archeological work, says McClymont.

"The tools we have are designed for this," he says. "These jobs are few and far between, but we've had a long-standing relationship with these universities and research groups"

Being part of a project like this is incredible, says McClymont.

Paul Bauman in the burial site where Jewish prisoners were held. The ladder is a replica of one used to pile up bodies to be burned. (Alastair McClymont, Paul Bauman)

"I actually don't have Jewish heritage but many of my colleagues ... and many of the people on the team had relatives who were killed during the holocaust in Lithuania."

Vilnius, the capital city, was once known as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania" because of the large Jewish population. Of the 70,000 Jews who lived there, only 7,000 survived the Holocaust.   

"You hear about the Holocaust in Western Europe but you really don't hear much about Eastern Europe and this is a story that's just coming to light now," says McClymont.

The project is ongoing and a documentary is currently being made about the Ponar Massacre and the secret tunnel by PBS for its NOVA series. It's expected to be released some time next year.

With files from The Eyeopener


  • A previous version of this story stated the Israel Antiquities Authority partnered with the University of Connecticut to undertake the project. In fact, this was an initiative of the Israel Antiquities Authority and the University of Hartford.
    Jul 01, 2016 11:53 AM MT