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.
Introduction by Esther Gilbert, Editor
The escape from the Nowogrodek labour camp, September 1943, as described by Idel, later Jack, Kagan in an excerpt from Sir Martin Gilbert’s book The Holocaust, The Jewish Tragedy Jack Kagan was 14 at the time:
In the labour camp at Nowogrodek, the two hundred and fifty survivors of the once flourishing Jewish population of five thousand had no idea of the events that had so recently taken place in Vilna, or in Bialystok. All they knew was that their destruction could be ordered at any moment; that urgent efforts were needed if they were to avoid being slaughtered.
With enormous difficulty, a tunnel was dug under the wire of the camp, out towards the surrounding woods. Some of the prisoners saw no point in making the escape bid, arguing, as Idel Kagan later recalled, “If we are going to die, why run for it?” But by September 22 the tunnel was ready and the escape began.*
‘When I came out of the tunnel’, Idel Kagan later recalled, ‘there was a tremendous machine-gun fire. The guards did not know what was happening. Because we had light in the tunnel, people lost their sense of direction when they came out into the dark. Some ran back towards the camp by mistake.’
Of the two hundred who escaped, eighty were killed or captured. The others reached the woods, and survived as best they could, searching for food, and for partisans. Idel Kagan had no weapon, only a pistol cover. But with this, he was able to give sufficient impression of being armed, so as to demand food from a farmer. Finally, after hiding by day and walking by night for ten days, he reached the partisan group led by Tobias Belsky.
Belsky’s three hundred partisans were not only an armed unit. They had also been, since their first days in the forest, the protectors of more than a thousand women, children and old people, who had managed to escape from the surrounding ghettos, whom Belsky and his three brothers had succeeded in rescuing. In an area without any large forests, the Belsky brothers had still managed to fend off repeated German searching. One of the four brothers, Zusl, followed Soviet instructions and took a group of eighty fighters into the woods as an encumbered unit, devoted solely to anti-German attacks. Tobias Belsky and his fighters remained with the ‘family camp’, as did his brother Asael and Achik. With them was Idel Kagan, who recalled how the brothers opened a bakery, a sausage workshop, a shoe repair workshop and, eventually, a munitions workshop, all of which were much used by the Soviet partisans in the neighbourhood. Tobias Belsky’s fighters would also go out from time to time on an anti-German expedition, to cut telegraph wires. Later in the war, Asael Belsky was killed in action near Königsberg. His girlfriend, Haya Dzielciolski, whose escape from Nowogrodek in July 1941 had led to the establishment of the family camp, survived. One of her first acts, with the Belsky brothers, had been to try to rescue their parents from the village of Stankewicz. But the Germans had already taken them to their deaths.
*the escape took place on September 26th