Esther Gilbert, Editor
The experience of Jews in the area that is now Belarus has its rightful place in Sir Martin Gilbert’s histories of the Holocaust. The Together Plan is working with communities, historians and individuals in Belarus to tell the story of the Belarus Jews which will become the Belarus Jewish Heritage Route. The story of the Jews of Belarus is rich and tragic. One of the darkest times in this history was the years between 1941 and 1944.
Each month The Together Plan features a short excerpt from the writings of the late Sir Martin Gilbert which focus on one of the cities, towns, villages, and forests where Jews tried desperately to escape the Nazi German murder machine.
Lady Esther Gilbert, the wife of the late Sir Martin, selects and submits these excerpts for The Together Plan’s newsletter.
For me, the one who put Novogrudok (Navarhudok) on the map was the late Jack Kagan. He had been a little boy in the ghetto, in the escape from the ghetto and in the forests, and he maintained his gentleness and determination to tell the story of his town and the fate of its Jews. He worked tirelessly to piece together the history of the town, to research what had happened, and to memorialise the Jews murdered there. Part of him remained in Novogrudok. Jack Kagan died in December 2016, 75 years after the destruction of his town.
Foreword, to Novogrudok, The History of a Shtetl
compiled by Jack Kagan
Published by Vallentine Mitchell, 2006
The town of Novogrudok was one of many thousands of towns in central and Eastern Europe whose Jewish population was destroyed in the Second World War. These towns were the centre of a vibrant Jewish life that had been in place for many centuries. Rabbis, scholars and traders, families seeped in Jewish tradition, the pious and the ambitious, the quiet and the contented, constituted a whole world of Jewish achievement, worship, culture and creativity. Between 1939 and 1945 that life was destroyed, and the Jewish contribution to those many thousands of towns and villages was as if it had never been. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the survivors of several hundred destroyed Jewish communities brought together historical material and personal testimonies, and published memorial books about their towns. The Jews of Novogrudok were fortunate that one such memorial book was written about their town. Now the content of that book, which was written in Yiddish and Hebrew, has been translated and edited under the guiding hand of Jack Kagan, and published in English.
The Jewish community of Novogrudok, dating back to the fifteenth century, numbered just over four thousand five hundred at the time of the 1921 Polish census. Those four thousand five hundred Jews constituted more than fifty per cent of the population of the town. When the German army entered the town in 1941 there were more than six thousand Jews there, as well as 500 refugees from those parts of Poland that had been overrun by Germany twenty-one months earlier.
In the wake of the German occupation, murder and destruction followed. A week after the arrival of the German forces in Novogrudok, fifty Jews had been murdered. On 7 December 1941, some 5,100 Jews were taken out of the town and killed: this was 80% of the Jewish population of the town. In three separate slaughters, the first on 7 August 1942, almost all the remaining Jews in the town and surrounding areas were killed. The surviving 250, who were being held as slave labourers, escaped on 26 September 1943, and joined the Jewish partisan group headed by the Bielski brothers. Of those, only 170 survived the war, among them Jack Kagan.
In the Warsaw ghetto, a Jewish underground newspaper wrote in December 1941 of a scene in Novogrudok where, in the words of the report, “there were two hundred Jews who refused to go to the execution site like beasts to the slaughter. They found the courage to raise, weapon in hand, against Hitler’s hangmen. Although they all fell in the unequal fight, before their own death they killed twenty of the murderers.” The newspaper added: “In wonder and respect we bow our heads at the grave of the heroes of Novogrudok. They are a symbol of the proud bearing of human beings who wish to die as free men. Although this act of defiance at a massacre site in Novogrudok does not appear to have any historical basis, the report of it certainly gave the Jews of Warsaw a cause for pride. That was a high honour for that little town. Those several hundred Jews from Novogrudok who did escape from the ghetto and fight as partisans were part of the European-wide struggle against the German conqueror. After the Red Army liberated Novogrudok in July 1944, just over 500 Novogrudok-born Jews returned. Most of them emigrated as soon as they were able to do so, most of them to Palestine (later Israel) and the United States, others as in Jack Kagan’s case to Britain. A mere fifteen families were living in the town in 1970. Today only two Jews from Novogrudok live there.
20 January 2005
Click here for article written for The Together Plan by New York author Michael Skakun ‘Navarudhak – A Portrait in Miniature’
For Gilbert Ghetto Guides click here