LVIV, Ukraine – Beneath cobblestone streets in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, excavators have discovered new hiding places in underground sewers that allowed some Jews to escape Nazi occupation during World War II.
According to local history researcher Hanna Tychka, more than 100,000 Jews, around a third of the city’s population at the time, were murdered by the Nazis.
Some managed to survive, including father and daughter Ignacy and Krystyna Chiger, who escaped the Jewish ghetto by digging a tunnel to the city’s sewer system and later writing books about their experiences.
Tychka and local excavators said they recently discovered the exact area where Chiger’s family lived from 1943-1944 and used the books as a guide.
Chiger dug a seven meter (7 yard) tunnel from his ghetto barrack to the sewer and broke the sewer concrete wall, which was 90 cm (35 inches) thick, Tychka said.
“They had to work quietly so that the Nazis wouldn’t notice that the barracks basement was being digged. The Jews used a hammer wrapped in a duster, “Tychka told Reuters near the site.
In September and October, Ukraine will mark the 80th anniversary of the mass shooting of nearly 34,000 civilians in the forested Babyn Yar gorge in the capital Kiev, one of the largest single massacres of Jews during the Holocaust.
In Lyiv, Tychka and her team discovered a tiny cave in July where they believe Jews fleeing the ghetto would spend their first night before moving to a larger shelter in the sewer system.
At the larger shelter, the team found artifacts they believe were used by the families in hiding, including a corroded plate, the figure of a sheep, and traces of carbide used for lanterns. They also discovered pieces of glass placed between bricks in the wall that were used to prevent rats from stealing food.
During a site visit, Tychka also pointed out a pipe that she believed families could use to get drinking water.
Chiger’s family was part of a larger group that included Halina Wind Preston, then in her early twenties.
Of the original group of 21, only 10, including the Chigers and Halina, survived the ordeal, says their son David Lee Preston.
Some did not last long in the sewer system and left town, with the group in constant danger of being spotted.
A baby born to one of the women in the group whose husband was swept away while fetching drinking water had to be suffocated for fear that his crying would reveal his location, Preston said.
Preston, who worked as a journalist for many years, wrote several articles for the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper after his mother’s death, telling her story and that of his father, a former inmate in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald extermination camps.
Preston, who maintains a website about his family’s experiences and Holocaust coverage, says his mother and her group were helped by two sewer workers the entire time they lived in the sewers.
They left their hiding place when Lviv was retaken by the Soviet army in July 1944.
The film “In Darkness”, a dramatized portrayal of the survival of the group of Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, was nominated for the 2012 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film.
Preston paid tribute to Tychka and the team that made the discovery, saying that as the number of those who survived the Holocaust dwindled, new generations of all backgrounds had to keep telling their stories.
The search for the group’s hiding place shows “a great desire of many young Ukrainians to fix history and prevent it from being corrupted,” said Preston.