How the Burning Brigade Broke Free

Photo in the public domain

In the village of Ponar, in present-day Lithuania, occupying Nazis shot nearly 100,000 people, then exhumed and burned the bodies in an effort to remove all traces of the atrocity. The prisoners forced to dig up and burn the bodies of their countrymen knew there was only one way to get out alive: escape. Matthew Shaer, in Smithsonian magazine, explores the creation and recent re-discovery of their tunnel to freedom.

The men worked in shifts throughout the night, with saws, files and spoons stolen from the burial pits. Under the cover of darkness, they smuggled wood planks into the lengthening tunnel to serve as struts; as they dug, they brought sandy earth back out and spread it across the bunker floor. Any noise was concealed by the singing of the other prisoners, who were frequently forced to perform for the Sturmbannführer—arias from The Gypsy Baron, by the Austrian composer Johann Strauss II, were a favorite.

After a day of disinterring and burning corpses, “we returned [to the bunker] on all fours,” Zeidel recalled years later, in a series of interviews with the filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, today held at an archive at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “We really fell like the dead. But,” Zeidel continued, “the spirit of initiative, the energy, the will that we had” helped sustain them. Once oxygen in the tunnel became too scarce to burn candles, a prisoner named Isaac Dogim, who had worked in Vilnius as an electrician, managed to wire the interior with lights, powered by a generator the Nazis had placed in the bunker. Behind the fake wall, the tunnel was expanding: 10 feet in length, 15. Gradually, the entire Burning Brigade was alerted to the escape plan. Dogim and Farber promised that no one would be left behind.

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