Researchers are excavating a 100-foot-long tunnel at the site of Ponar Forest massacre near Vilnius
By Jesse Bernstein
The Israel Antiquities Authority, an Israeli governmental research team dedicated to the excavation and conservation of worldwide Jewry, recently uncovered an incredible if excruciating piece of Holocaust history near Vilnius, Lithuania: an escape tunnel.
According to JTA, the Antiquities Authority, along with the help of the University of Hartford, geophysicists from global advisory firm Advisian, the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum, and PBS, discovered a tunnel used by Lithuanian Jews to escape the Ponar forest massacre, when 100,000 people—70,000 of whom were Jews—were shot and thrown into pits over a period of four years.
As the Red Army approached in 1943, remaining Nazi units forced prisoners from the Stutthoff concentration camp to begin digging up the corpses and burn them, in order to erase evidence of the atrocities. Knowing that they would be killed after completing their gruesome task, the prisoners began to devise a plan to escape.
At night the prisoners, whose legs were shackled, were held in a deep pit previously used for the execution of Vilnius Jews. During the day they worked to hide the mass graves and burn the corpses.
Some of the workers decided to escape by digging a tunnel from the pit that was their prison. For three months they dug using only spoons and their hands.
On the night of April, 15, 1944, the prisoners cut their leg shackles with a nail file, and 40 of them crawled through the narrow tunnel. They were quickly discovered by the guards and many were shot. Some 15 managed to cut the fence of the camp and escape into the forest. Eleven reached the partisan forces and survived the war.
The existence of the tunnel has been known to researchers for years, but years of searching had proved fruitless. With its discovery, PBS’s series Nova is creating a documentary that’s slated to air in 2017. A preview can be watched here.
Dr. Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who’s leading the archaeological dig with University of Hartford Professor of Jewish History Richard Freund, said: “As an Israeli whose family originated in Lithuania, I was reduced to tears on the discovery of the escape tunnel at Ponar. This discovery is a heartwarming witness to the victory of hope over desperation. The exposure of the tunnel enables us to present, not only the horrors of the Holocaust, but also the yearning for life.”
Eliaz Cohen can hardly forget his annual school trips to Hebron as a teenager. One excursion, around the age of 13 or 14, was especially memorable. Cohen and his classmates from the bourgeois settlement of Elkana in western Samaria were meeting with Elyakim Haetzni, a secular leader in the settlement movement.
“He posed a question to us,” Cohen remembered recently. “Imagine you had a girlfriend. How would you react if someone else wanted to go out with her? All the more so, imagine she were your wife!”
The girlfriend in Haetzni’s analogy was the Land of Israel; the “someone else” were the Arabs. Haetzni’s romantic parable excited the teenagers, Cohen recalled, not only because none of them dated, but also because it was “manipulatively” predicated on a relationship of jealousy and possessiveness.
Today, still a settler, the 44-year-old poet thinks of his Palestinian neighbors quite differently. “I imagine them like a brother from a previous marriage,” he said. “We share half of our genes. We both belong to the same mother, our shared homeland.”
Cohen is a founding member of Two States One Homeland, a grass-roots initiative geared toward breaking the One State/Two State dichotomy, which he believes has continuously thwarted efforts by Israeli and Palestinian leaders to forge peace. Launched four years ago with journalist Meron Rapoport following a series of meetings between activists on both sides of the conflict, the initiative adopts the two-state paradigm.
“One of our sacred principles is that you don’t right a wrong by creating another wrong,” Cohen said. That means no settlers get displaced as part of the deal, nor do Israelis now living on the ruins of Palestinian villages within the Green Line.
The allowance given to Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral lands inside Israel was the main drawing point for Awni al-Mashni, a 57-year-old native of Bethlehem and member of Fatah’s Advisory Council. Tracing his family lineage to the abandoned village of al-Qabu southwest of Jerusalem, Mashni considers himself a 1948 refugee, an identity he says he inherited from his father and bequeaths to his children.
“It’s a natural dream,” Mashni said. “Why should a Jew who left 2,000 years ago be allowed to return, while a Palestinian who left 60 years ago shouldn’t?” he wondered.
Having spent 12 years in and out of Israeli jails for his political activities in the 1970s and ’80s, Mashni said he had signed on to the two-state vision advanced by his party through the Oslo Process in a bid “to give peace a chance.” But the Oslo experiment failed miserably for both Israelis and Palestinians, he argued.
“Politically, we’re in a worse situation now than we were before Oslo,” he said. Imagining a life side by side with Israelis in a European Union-like territory with invisible borders is not difficult for Mashni. Historically, the Arab position consistently refused partition. “This land is indivisible,” he stressed.
For Cohen, coming to support partition was a longer process. He was raised, he says, on the “scaremongering” that a Palestinian state would be a terrorist entity in the heart of our land. God’s biblical promise of Land of Israel to our forefathers also played an important role.
But that started to change at the beginning of the last decade, when Cohen, known then as the star poet of the settler movement, began doubting the orthodoxy of his surroundings. In 2002, he founded Tzedek, (“justice”) a movement advocating social and political justice in Israel, which failed to enter the Knesset in 2003. In 2011, he helped found Eretz Yoshveyha (“land of its inhabitants”), a grass-roots movement advocating Israeli-Palestinian coexistence in a unitary state, inspired by the teachings of the late Rabbi Menachem Froman.
In June 2007, on the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War, Cohen penned a bold opinion article in Maariv titled “In Support of Return.” In it, he drew a comparison between the 1968 return of Israeli orphans to his own kibbutz, Kfar Etzion—overrun by the Jordanian army in 1948—and the yearning of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, abandoned in the same war.
“Through the return of Jewish settlers to their homes after 19 years of Jordanian occupation, we can start training our consciousness—like one trains an atrophied muscle—to recognize the connection of Palestinians to the places where they had lived for tens and hundreds of years prior to our War of Independence, which is their Nakba,” he wrote.
Today, not only does Cohen not object to Awni al-Mashni’s return to al-Qabu, he sees it as “a moral imperative.” Zochrot, a far-left Israeli nongovernmental organization mapping abandoned Arab villages within the Green Line for future Palestinian resettlement, is undertaking invaluable work to advance that end, Cohen added.
Proposed: Settlers will be allowed to remain in their homes in the West Bank as Israeli citizens and permanent residents of the Palestinian state. In return, an equivalent number of Palestinians will be allowed to settle in Israel, reestablishing communities destroyed during the 1948 War of Independence.
“This isn’t ancient history; there’s an entire generation living here that still remembers. We can’t dismiss it as Palestinian propaganda,” he said. “I want Awni to rebuild his village.”
Paradoxically, perhaps, the notion of Palestinian statehood remains more difficult for Cohen to stomach. “For right-wingers, countenancing a Palestinian state is crossing the Rubicon,” he said. “I was much more comfortable in Eretz Yoshveyha, which spoke of a one-state solution.”
Cohen was swayed, however, by a conversation with a Palestinian colleague who spoke of the emotional need of Palestinians for a state of their own. “He told me: ‘You have had your state for almost 70 years. I know it’s a big headache, but our people need their own celebrating moment after so many defeats.’ ”
On June 2, some 300 Israelis and Palestinians gathered at the Tel Aviv Convention Center to listen to details of the unique confederation in a conference titled “from initiative to implementation.” Breakout sessions tackled thorny issues such as security, education and constitutions. Settlers from Ofra and the Etzion Bloc mingled with post-Zionists from north Tel Aviv and Palestinians from Beit Sahour in an excited medley of Hebrew, English and Arabic.
Muhammad Beiruti, a militant Fatah veteran living in Ramallah, said the sole aspiration of his extended family is to return to their ancestral the village of Summil near the Israeli city of Kiryat Gat. “Jews and Arabs can reside together everywhere in Palestine,” Beiruti said, citing binational Israeli cities such as Haifa and Jaffa. “Jews can come live in Bethlehem and Ramallah, but not as settlers like in Hebron.”
Beiruti envisioned Israelis living next door to him just as they would in London or New York, where home ownership doesn’t entail political sovereignty or the protection of an army. If Israel were to allow for the development of an independent Palestinian state alongside it, he asserted, “not one Palestinian would seek the removal of Jews from the land, not even Hamas and Islamic jihad. We will protect you.”
Near his settlement of Alon Shvut, south of Jerusalem, Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger has been implementing the initiative’s vision on the ground in his own push, Roots. Through binational dialogue sessions, summer camps and language courses, he said the infrastructure of peace was being laid from the bottom up.
“This peace plan could provide the greatest amount of dignity and justice to both sides,” said Schlesinger, who immigrated to Israel from Long Island in 1977, of Two States, One Homeland. “My neighbors, the settlers, have no idea who the Palestinians are. We actually think they don’t exist. As long as we don’t know they exist, in the deepest sense, as individual humans and as a collective, we can’t even start the discussion of what our vision should be, because we have no other perspective,” he said. “Once both sides see each other, if they’re good people, they must want for the other what they want for themselves.”
Under the Two States, One Homeland paradigm, Schlesinger will have two options: To live as an Israeli citizen under Palestinian rule or to relocate into Israel proper. He admitted that the notion of living in a Palestinian municipality scares him. “If they were to act toward us the way we act toward them, that would be dangerous and frightening,” he said. The preferable solution would be a gradual Israeli withdrawal over a period of several decades, Schlesinger opined, providing time enough for both societies to undergo a significant educational process.
“We have to train a whole new generation of Israeli kids to have a deep connection to the land, but also understand the Palestinian connection to the land,” he imagined, “a whole generation that would know Arabic and feel comfortable with Arab culture.”