A 100-foot escape tunnel dug by Jewish prisoners using only their hands and spoons has been unearthed in Lithuania, a research team announced Wednesday. From 1941 to 1944, about 100,000 people (70,000 of them Jews from nearby Vilnius) were slaughtered by the Nazis, then dumped into burial pits in Lithuania's Ponar forest—systemic murder that started even before the gas chambers in what archaeologist Richard Freund tells the New York Times was "ground zero for the Holocaust." To cover up the massacre, the Nazis forced 80 Jews from the nearby Stutthof concentration camp to exhume the bodies, burn them, and hide the ashes, Ynetnews reports. These "corpse unit" members were kept in a deep pit during the night, and some spent those hours digging an escape tunnel. On the night of April 15, 1944, 40 of them made a break for it. Guards shot many on sight, but 11 escaped and survived the war to tell the story of the legendary tunnel.
The research team led by Freund used a special geophysical process to locate the tunnel, combining radar and electrical resistivity tomography, which uses electricity to examine natural objects in the ground and soil disturbances that may have been caused by digging. These nonintrusive search methods allow scientists to explore sites that previously were off-limits, notes PBS, which will air a Nova documentary on the discovery in 2017. It also puts to bed the belief that stories told through the years about the tunnel were only a myth. "As an Israeli whose family originated in Lithuania, I was reduced to tears on the discovery of the escape tunnel," an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority tells Ynetnews. "[It] enables us to present not only the horrors of the Holocaust, but also the yearning for life." (Evidence of an escape tunnel was found under the Sobibor concentration camp.)