As It Happens

Calgary scientist helps locate escape tunnel at Nazi concentration camp

Gone, but never forgotten. A geophysicist from Alberta has helped archaeologists uncover a tunnel in Lithuania. It was used by prisoners to escape a Nazi concentration camp.
Calgary geophysicist Paul Bauman at the site of the escape tunnel at what was once the Ponary Nazi concentration camp. (Alastair McClymont, Paul Bauman)

It was known as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania."

Before the Second World War, the town of Vilnius was home to a vibrant Jewish community. Then the Nazis arrived and set up the Ponary concentration camp.

During the Holocaust, tens of thousands of people were killed at the site. Their bodies were dumped in mass graves and eventually burned. The job was given to a crew of Jewish prisoners. They became known as the "Burning Brigade."

Jewish prisoners are lined up in killing pits at the Ponary Nazi concentraion camp before being shot and buried, circa 1942. (WIkipedia / archives)

But amidst the horror coming out of the camp, there are also stories of courage — and tales of an escape tunnel built by members of the "Burning Brigade."

Calgary geophysicist Paul Bauman visited the site. He and an international team of archaeologists finally located the long-rumoured escape tunnel.

Members of the research team prepare to scan a pit used to hold victims of the Nazis at the Ponary massacre site near Vilnius in Lituania. (Ezra Wolfinger/Israel Antiquities Authority via Associated Press)

Paul Bauman tells As It Happens guest-host Laura Lynch how they did it.

LAURA LYNCH: Mr. Bauman, I'd say that you unearthed this tunnel, but that's not quite true. How did you go about your search for it?

PAUL BAUMAN: So the general location of the tunnel was known. We have testimonies from the escapees. We knew where they were interned and the beginning of the tunnel had been identified in 2004 by the Lithuanians. So the archaeologists had a general idea, but then we used geophysical techniques to pinpoint the exact location, depth and extent of the tunnel.

LL: So what was your initial reaction when you finally pinpointed the tunnel's location?

PB: Well, our initial reaction was that we were pleased from a very technical aspect. And then, as we worked on it more and continued to work in the Ponary forest, the meaning of finding this tunnel and going back to the events of 76 years ago, it certainly weighed on our minds. Also it's a very dense forest, very dark. Just as it would have been back then. Very few people come to visit this place and the people that we did see were relatives of people that were murdered there.

LL: They must have appreciated the fact that you found it?

PB: Yes. Interested, excited and even moved. I mean, one of the archaeologists working with us from the antiquities authority was literally brought to tears. He had 160 relatives who were killed there at Ponary. So, aside from being an archaeologist and having a vocational interest, he had a very personal interest in what occurred there. Of course, this site, Ponary, is where the Holocaust began. One hundred thousand people were killed there beginning in June 1941.


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