Escape from Novogrodek

by Brian on September 7, 2012

in Jewish Holidays and Culture,Living Through Terror

Jack Kagan has one of the most breathtaking – and little known – stories of heroism and escape during the Holocaust. Kagan was one of 250 Jews forced into a “work camp” near Novogrodek, Belasrus. I say “work” camp because it was clear that their fate would ultimately be the same as the 15,000 Jews in the nearby towns and villages who had already been murdered.

But the last Jews in Novogrodek had a different idea. In May 1943, they decided to dig a tunnel out of the camp. That tunnel ultimately stretched for over 200 meters, starting from inside the barracks where the Jews lived and ending in a cornfield. It measured only 75 cm high and 60 cm wide and was 1.5 meters below the ground. Once they came out on the other side, the escaping Jews had to run towards a nearby forest. They would eventually be taken in by the local Jewish partisans – including the Bielsky brothers, best known from the movie Defiance.

The digging process went on day and night with dirt removed by a trolley and stashed inside the barracks themselves until, at 8:00 PM on September 26 – just four days before the Germans planned to liquidate the camp, although the Jews did not know this – nearly every one of the prisoners escaped through the tunnel into freedom. 170 made it to the partisans; the rest were caught and killed. Jack Kagan was one of the last to crawl through the tunnel; today he lives in England.

So, what does this have to do with Israel (the focus of this blog)? Jack Kagan’s son Michael lives in Jerusalem. And last month, he returned to Novogrodek with his father, much of his family and a film crew to search for signs of the tunnel. The story plays out like a gripping detective novel, including handwritten drawings smuggled out of the camp in 1943, metal detectors sweeping over the fields 69 years later and tractors digging trenches to search for tell-tale signs of, if not the tunnel itself, than maybe the electric cables strung through it or the wood that held up the roof.

As itinerant archaeologists, they searched for a week in often pouring rain and found…nothing. They somehow pushed past discouragement: they were, after all, together as a family, survivors and descendents. And then, on the very last day, there it was – a small tunnel, buried deep in the ground. As the family (and the many Belarusian villagers who joined the search) wept, they sang HaTikva (the Israeli national anthem) on the spot.

Last night, Michael Kagan gave a presentation of their findings. A standing room only crowd assembled in the Kagan’s Jerusalem living to hear the story and see the photos taken of the journey. The film crew was there too to document the story and audience as they create what will undoubtedly be a highly moving documentary.

The extermination of the Jews from the Novogrodek work camp was scheduled to take place, cruelly, on Rosh Hashana. In just ten days, it will be the High Holy Days again. For those of us who will be in synagogue, let us reflect not only on the tragedies of the past, but the light of day that enabled some 250 brave Jewish souls to celebrate the holidays in freedom.

The complete story of the escape from Novogrudek via the tunnels and the journel to the partisans can be found on this website.

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