In 2013 during excavations in the former Nazi-extermination camp in Sobibor, in nowadays eastern Poland, an escape tunnel was discovered. It became clear the tunnel leads from the barrack of the Sonderkommando, besides the gas chambers, outside camp III, the area with the gas chambers. In the autumn of 1943 the inmates tried to escape, but the tunnel was discovered. All members of the Sonderkommando were executed, as very few testimonies confirmed.
The archaeological excavations in the former Nazi-extermination camp of Sobibor in eastern Poland are made possible by a collaboration of four countries: Israel, Netherlands, Poland and Slovakia. Main goal of this joint project is the realization of a visitor centre and monument on the site. The still ongoing excavations, upscaled since 2011, are carried out in order to make construction works possible, and to reveal sensible traces, gain knowledge about the inner structure of the camp and to secure personal items. The excavations were carried out under supervision of Wojciech Mazurek MA (Sub Terra Archaeological Research, Chełm, Poland), Yoram Haimi (representative of Yad Vashem, Israel) and Ivar Schute (representative of the Dutch Ministry of Welfare, since 2013).
The former Nazi-extermination camp of Sobibor, in which around 200,000 Jewish people were killed in 1942-1943, consisted of a few different Lagers, or camps. Alongside the still existing railway tracks the so-called Vorlager was situated, where the SS-troops had their quarters. Victims coming with trains, arrived at the ramp and were forced to go to camp II. In these barracks their belongings and clothes were taken by forced labourers, housing in camp I, behind the Vorlager. Naked, the victims were forced into a long fenced path, the Himmelfahrtstrasse, which ended in camp III, the area with gas chambers and mass graves. The bodies had to be ‘processed’ by another group of forced labourers, the Sonderkommando, who lived under terrible conditions in one or two barracks inside camp III. At the 14th of October of 1943 the labourers in camp
I revolted. About 300 of them escaped of which 50 survived the war. The extermination camp was broken down by the Germans. Nowadays nothing rests, only archaeological traces. During the excavations an earlier escape tunnel was discovered, leading from the barrack of the Sonderkommando outside the fences of camp III. This tunnel was partly excavated after discovery in 2013 and later on, in 2016 [1,2].
In 2013 a barrack was found and excavated just east of an asphalt square, under which, as became clear the next year, the foundations of the gas chambers were still preserved. The barrack lies within a fenced area and housed the members of the Sonderkommando within camp III. A surprising discovery were the traces of an escape tunnel, at a depth of about 1.60 m below the floor of the barrack. It leads in a easterly direction under the fences that surrounded camp III. Partly it was excavated in 2013 and 2016. The eastern end of the tunnel is still visible in the forest as a small ditch, the result of collapsing or destruction. Following this ditch it became clear the tunnel reaches outside camp III, with a length of an estimated 20m. Due to the sandy soil present in Sobibor, the Jewish prisoners who dug the escape channel supported it with wooden beams. In the tunnel little personal items were found; a 1.5m long metal rod was apparantly used to dig .
Very few historical references stated that the members of the Sonderkommando were killed after discovery of an escape tunnel. As an example may serve the testimony of an unnamed girl from Holland. At age seventeen this young woman
worked with a group of women prisoners knitting clothing. She
described the discovery of an escape tunnel by the Nazis prior
to its completion. In wake of the discovery of the tunnel, all the
prisoners of Camp III were summarily executed.
In 2016 at the killing site of Ponar (nowadays Paneriai),
just outside Vilnius, the capital site of Lithuania another escape
tunnel was revealed using geophysicla techniques. Scientists
of The United States, Canada, Israel and Lithuania were able
to locate the 34 m long tunnel, which was already known from
historical records. Futhermore, the beginning of the tunnel was
already discovered in 2004. In Ponar about 100,000 people
were killed, 70,000 of them of Jewish origin. Also at this site the
Germans, towards the end of the war, tried to erase their traces.
Prisoners from the Stutthof camp (nowadays Poland) were
transported to Ponar to excavate the mass graves and and burn
the bodies. At night, these prisoners had to stay in one of the pits
used in the killings. It were these prisoners who dug the tunnel
in aboit three months under frightful circumstances. Forty of
them escaped on the 15th of April, 1944. Eleven of them survived
and gave testimony.
Another parallel (amongst the very few) is the dunnel dug
out of the Novogroduk ghetto, in 1943 a partly Jewish Polish
city, nowadays a city in Belarus: Navahradak. About 350 persons
escaped through the tunnel which appeared to have a length
of about 200 m, starting out of a barrack, comparable to the
Sobibor tunnel. Societal meaning
Although the results of the Sobibor and Ponar researches
still have to be analyzed and published, it becomes clear that
these tunnel especially amongst the Jewish community have
a great societal meaning. They form a clear example of Jewish
resistance, under the most horrible circumstances one can
imagine. As Markas Zingeris, director of the Vilna Gaon Jewish
State Museum in Vilnius, stated after the geophysical mapping of
the Ponar tunnel: ‘It is a very important discovery, because this
is another proof of resistance of those who were about to die.’