On 26 September 1943, 250 Jewish prisoners escaped from a tunnel that they had dug to escape the Novogrudok Ghetto and Labour Camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. 170 survivors of the escape went on to fight with Jewish partisans in the forests, made famous in the film Defiance. In this blog post, we share the story of one of the men who escaped that day - the late Jack Kagan BEM (born Idel Kagan in 1929). This post draws on Jack's own words (in quotation marks) and IWM has worked closely with his daughter Debbie, who has kindly shared photographs and film that tell her father's remarkable story.
A special thank you to Tamara Vershitskaya who worked so hard with Jack Kagan over the years, to help make everything possible.
I was born in 1929 in Novogrudok [then Poland, now in Belarus] to a unique family. Two brothers married two sisters and harmony reigned in our house! Although we had two houses, we lived in one. Everything was done together; the most important thing in life was family. My father Yankel was a businessman. My mother, Dvore, was a businesswoman who looked after our two shops, where we sold the saddles and sandals produced in our workshops. I had a sister, Nachama, two years older than myself. We were a middle-class family and we did not want for anything.
When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union and marched into Novogrudok in 1941, these young Jewish people and their families suffered the full horror of Nazi rule. All Jewish residents were forced onto the town square and divided – the largest group, including members of Jack’s extended family, was driven out of town to be shot into mass graves.
Jack and his immediate family along with the rest of the second group were moved into the Novogrudok ghetto, which operated as a labour camp. Jack and his father worked as ‘specialists’ making saddles for the German army.
There were further incidences of round ups within the ghetto, where people were murdered. On 7 May 1943, Jack’s mother, sister and aunt were killed.
On 7 May 1943, early in the morning as was the general custom, 500 camp inmates assembled in the courtyard for a routine count and as before, 250 of the ‘specialists’ were taken to the main hall of the workshops for the extra food rations: 1 kilo of bread for 10 days (the normal food ration was only 150 grams of bread and a bowl of soup made from potato peels per day). As soon as the specialists entered the building both groups were surrounded by the local police. The remaining 250 in the courtyard were taken about a kilometre away to a prepared mass grave and shot.
Jack’s father was moved to another camp, Koldichevo, where he died trying to escape early in 1944. Jack recalled,
The parting was so quick, and to this day I see my poor father putting on a brave face, saying he would see me soon, knowing very well that this was goodbye forever.
Jack joined a committee that was formed to make a mass break out from the labour camp, with the hope of joining the partisans (armed resistance fighters) in the forests. The committee was made up of:
Berl Yoselevitz, Nota Sucharski, Ruvke Shabakovski, Abram Rakivski, Motle Morduchovitz, Aizik Yarmovski, Lionke Portnoi, Neach Sosnovski, Moshe Niegnievicki and Chonie Kushner
They had at their disposal six rifles, a few pistols and hand grenades. The original plan was a suicide attack on the guards, to die a hero’s death, but as the Germans reinforced the guards after 7 May, the committee decided on another plan, i.e. to dig a tunnel. The tunnel was to be dug below the last bunk in the stable. It was about 40 metres from the fence, facing the forest as there was a corn field behind the camp. An engineer was checking the direction left to right and depth of the dig. The length of the tunnel it was estimated was approximately 100 metres. The tunnel was 1.5 metres below ground level, about 60 centimetres wide and a metre in height.
The planning committee believed that the chances of escaping during a very dark light would be very good and hoped that the digging would be completed before August, just before the harvest. The problem was how to overcome the searchlights. There was an electrician by the name of Rukovski who arranged fuses in such a way that the searchlights could be switched on and off at our will. He also introduced an electric cable into the tunnel, as we were not allowed electricity in the camp.
The joiners prepared railway lines and a trolley. The tailors prepared bags using blankets and reins to pull the trolley. The work started in earnest, a battle against time, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
A signal was arranged. If the guards came into the camp, the ‘stable’ inmates were alerted. The loft was reinforced, and a chain operation started to fill up the earth in bags and carry it up to the lofts. The metal workers made the necessary digging tools.
It was dug from May to August according to plan. When the attics were filled, double walls were created to fill up the outgoing earth. Occasionally it was contrived that the searchlights would fail. Electricians from the camp and outside the camp would be called but they could not find the fault.
“Panic stations” – The Germans brought a tractor to cut the corn before the scheduled time! We were worried whether the tunnel would hold out under the weight of the tractor. It did and the work resumed. Now that the harvest had taken place it was necessary to dig a further 150 metres beyond the little hill. The rainy season arrived. Wood had to be stolen from the workshops to reinforce the ceiling and the digging went on.
We started counting the days for the escape. A list was drawn up, I do not know how. The first in line were to be half of the armed inmates. After them the main diggers, then the younger men and at the end again five people with the pistols. Their job would be to keep order.
For over fifty years, Jack gave many talks to children, to university students and the general public. The same question was continuously asked ‘how was it possible to dig for more than four months and not be discovered?’
1. It was due to the consolidated effort of the Jews of the Ghetto and a great deal of ingenuity. There were numerous differences in the opinions on how to proceed, there were even threats of disclosure, but in the end, most were united in the effort to complete the tunnel.
2. We were very careful. We were always on the look-out. Two people were always on guard and Rukovski installed a warning bell. The dug soil was moved only at night.
3. The Jewish tradesmen made certain that the work in the workshops was not neglected and that the output did not drop. There was no reason for the Polish and Belarus foremen to suspect that any other activity was going on.
4. The sanitary conditions in the Ghetto were appalling and the smell was atrocious. There was a lack of everything, including water. This was one of the reasons that the Germans kept, as much as possible, away from the Ghetto.
And most importantly WE WERE LUCKY!
On the day of the escape, 26 September 1943, Jack was just 14 years old.
We were very lucky that the weather was horrible, rain, wind and totally darkness. The searchlight was out but we had light in the tunnel. The first 120 went into the tunnel and the break-out began. There was complete silence and perfect organisation but because of the light inside the tunnel and the total darkness outside, people became disoriented, lost their way, and ran towards the camp.
The guards thought that partisans had come to liberate the camp and started shooting. We do not know how many were killed there. The following morning when the guards realised what had happened, they alerted the Germans, and a full-scale chase began. Some were captured alive, and some were shot on the spot. We reckon that altogether eighty people did not reach the partisans.
The young escapees joined various partisan fighting brigades. The remainder joined the Kalinin brigade where Bielski was the commander. In this brigade were 1,200 Jews from the age of eight to seventy and thanks to Tuvia Bielski and his brothers, around 400 Jews from Novogrudok survived. They were liberated on 14 July 1944.
It was difficult for the survivors to remain in Novogrudok after the war. For them it was a place with too many memories. The loss of their families was too much to endure. Most wanted to start a new life, preferably in an independent state of Israel.
Jack moved to Britain, where he settled, married Barbara and raised three children. Their family grew, with grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In 1986, Jack gave his testimony to Imperial War Museums, which you can listen to online here.
Jack revisited his hometown (now Navahrudak, Belarus) and was involved in excavations to locate the tunnel through which he escaped. The story of the Bielski partisans became more well known thanks to the 2008 film Defiance starring Daniel Craig, whose premiere Jack attended.
In 2016 Jack was named in Her Majesty the Queen's New Year Honours List and received the British Empire Medal (BEM). He passed away in 2016.
Jack's daughter Debbie wishes to close this post with the words of Hirsh Glick's Zog nit keynmol (Never Say This Is The End), as a tribute to the courage of the Jewish partisans.
Never say this is the final road for you,
Though leaden skies may cover over days of blue.
As the hour that we longed for is so near,
Our step sends out the message: we are here!
Acknowledgement for kind permission to use the photographs and film: