Archeologists excavating a former Nazi death camp in Poland believe they have found evidence of an escape tunnel created by a group of prisoners.
The rudimentary tunnel was first located in May at the Sobibor death camp, near what is now the eastern border of Poland. Dug about five feet beneath the surface and wide enough for a human, the tunnel stretched 32 feet from a barracks to beneath one of the barbwire fences surrounding the camp, according to the Telegraph.
"We found a snake-shaped tunnel in what was once the center of the shed, leading eastwards –- out of the camp," Yoram Haimi, one of the leaders of the team, told Israeli news outlet Haaretz. “They started digging from the center of the shed we exposed. They lifted up the wooden boards and dug, maybe at night. They then scattered the dirt they dug up. ... It’s an amazing story that no one knew about until now. There are no survivors to tell us what happened there.”
Wojciech Mazurek, another team leader, told the Telegraph that the tunnel appears to have been built by the Sonderkommando, a group of Jewish prisoners who were spared immediate death but were forced to help with the mass killing of their fellow prisoners. Their status may have given them enough time to plan and dig the tunnel, according to the Telegraph.
However, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency points out that the tunnel does not appear to have been used.
“The Germans found the tunnel and therefore shot and then burned the entire crew of the Sonderkommando,” Mazurek told a Polish newspaper, according to JTA.
Between the spring of 1942 and the fall of 1944, an estimated 250,000 Jews -- mostly from Poland, the Netherlands and Slovakia -- died at Sobibor, per JTA. The camp is an illustrative example of Hitler's "Final Solution," according to CBS, as it was designed specifically to kill as many Jews as possible.
While there have been no reports of any escape tunnels used successfully at Sobibor, a prisoner revolt at the camp resulted in the killing of close to a dozen guards on Oct. 14, 1943, according to the U.S Holocaust Museum. Around 300 prisoners made it past the fences, but 100 were quickly recaptured, and more than half of the rest did not survive the war.
Following the uprising, the camp was destroyed as the Nazis attempted to hide all traces of its murderous past. But Mazurek and Haimi were able to uncover evidence anyway, including the remains of the crematorium.
“We found the strip of land the bodies were burned on,” Haimi, who had two uncles who died at Sobibor, told Haaretz. “The earth there is painted a reddish-brown color. My guess is that this is from the blood and fat of the victims, which seeped down to a depth of three meters. The area smells of carrion. It’s amazing and horrifying at the same time.”
Researchers plan to continue excavation efforts at the site, including attempting to find some of the camp's burial grounds, according to Haaretz.