A 20-minute drive from Lithuania’s capital city of Vilnius, the Ponar forest once stood witness to the gruesome devastation of the Holocaust. From 1941 to 1943, between 80,000 and 100,000 Jewish people had been shot and buried in mass burial pits and graves in the forest.
While in the Ponar forest, Dr. Harry Jol remembered hearing the whistle of nearby trains as they passed through.
“You close your eyes, and you’re going, ‘Is this another trainload of people?’ You can start imagining these things,” he said.
Jol, who has taught in the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire geography and anthropology department for 20 years, will be coming to Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Helfaer Community Services Building on Sunday, May 21 to speak about his research in Lithuania. As a member of an international research team, Jol traveled to Ponar in 2016 to help locate any unknown mass graves in the area. But the team ended up discovering something unexpected that had only been spoken about in Holocaust survivor stories – a tunnel that Jewish prisoners had dug to escape Ponar.
Known as the Burning Brigade, the group of 80 prisoners who had created the tunnel were forced to exhume the bodies of those who had been previously executed at Ponar. To cover up the atrocities they had committed, the Nazis then directed the prisoners to burn the bodies.
“This is a difficult subject when you’re working and trying to locate literally tens of thousands of people who have been executed, and then later exhumed and burned to try and eliminate any evidence,” said Jol. “It’s a very difficult thing to wrap your head around.”
In an attempt to escape, the prisoners at Ponar spent 76 days digging the tunnel using only spoons. In the end, only 12 were able to get away.
Led by archaeologist Richard Freund from the University of Hartford in Connecticut, the research team focuses on using noninvasive tools to discover new sites beneath the surface of the earth. Jol specializes in one of these tools – ground penetrating radar, or GPR, which uses FM radio waves to locate features in the ground.
“We put those radio waves into the ground, and it reflects off different layers or anomalies in the subsurface,” explained Jol. “So it’s similar to getting an M.R.I. or getting a CAT scan or going for X-rays. Different frequencies, but you’re looking inside your body in that situation, and we’re looking inside the ground.”
According to Jol, excavations are often too intrusive for sensitive sites like those at Ponar. GPR allows researchers to detect what’s underneath the ground’s surface without having to dig.
“When we look at Jewish burial sites it’s very important that we don’t dig these places up. But we would like to designate these areas and locate them,” he said. “As these areas get more developed, you want to be able to close some of these areas of and say, ‘These are sacred sites, these are important historical sites, we’re not going to build a highway through them, we’re not going to build a railway through them.’”
Jol’s research syncs up with Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s exhibit, “Holocaust by Bullets,” which focuses on the work of Rev. Patrick Desbois. Not unlike the team at Ponar, Rev. Desbois set out to tell the stories of the millions of Jews who had been executed by locating mass grave sites.
“This is before the gas chambers,” Jol said. “Everyone was individually killed by a bullet.”
In addition to his work at Ponar, Jol plans to talk about the team’s discovery of the Great Synagogue in Vilnius, not far from Ponar. Built in the 1630s, the synagogue had been damaged when the Nazi army took Vilnius in 1941, and was eventually destroyed by the Soviets when the war was over.
But thinking about his work in Lithuania and other sites all over the world, Jol highlighted the significance of using science to authenticate and uncover survivor stories so that they’re not forgotten.
“As most of the survivors from the Holocaust are passing away, there are a variety of different forces who want to deny that the Holocaust has happened,” Jol said. “There are tools that we need to put together to basically scientifically verify the survivors’ stories, and as we can do that, we can put to rest that these are not just stories, these are facts.”
The trip to Ponar was also a powerful learning experience for the students that accompanied him.
“Students have this experience, regardless of their background. Everyone very quickly realizes this is not about being a Jew, or a Christian, or a Muslim or anything like that. This is about humanity. And I think everyone can buy into that story.”
* * *
What: Uncovering WWII Jewish Escape Tunnel in Lithuania’s Ponar Forrest
When: Sunday, May 21 at 1:30 p.m.
Where: Helfaer Community Services Building, 1360 N. Prospect Ave.
Cost: Free & open to the public