At least 80,000 people—most of them Jews—were killed at a camp named Ponar in what is now Lithuania as the Nazis transitioned to the Final Solution. The actual number is likely much higher. To find yourself at Ponar was a death sentence. But a legend, based on first-hand accounts from a handful of survivors, told of a dozen Ponar prisoners who managed to tunnel their way to freedom. There was never any proof—even one of the Ponar escapees who revisited the site couldn't find any sign of the tunnel—until last year. A massive piece in Smithsonian Magazine tells the incredible story of how members of the "Burning Brigade" escaped death through sheer force of will and how an American archaeologist discovered their escape route 72 years later.
The Burning Brigade was 80 or so Ponar prisoners tasked with collecting and burning thousands of bodies a week on giant funeral pyres. But unbeknownst to their captors, they were also digging their way to freedom. Chained together, living on stew made of ice, dirt, and potatoes, and dealing with unimaginable horror (one man discovered his wife's corpse among the piles of bodies), the Burning Brigade nonetheless managed to tunnel 110 feet to the forest surrounding Ponar. Only a dozen of them survived the escape, but even that was a testament. “I am here with my children, and my children had children of their own, and they are here, too. Can you see?" Motke Zeidel, the brigade's last living member who died in 2007, said to the ruins of Ponar on his final visit there. Read the full story here. (Read more Holocaust stories.)