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.
On October 29 The Together Plan will honour the 80th anniversary of the escape from the Nowogrodek labour camp, in partnership with the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum in Israel. Click here to book.
Sir Martin Gilbert has written, in his book The Holocaust, The Jewish Tragedy, what happened in Nowogrodek. Jack (Idel) Kagan was 12 when the Germans invaded Nowogrodek in 1941. He describes the dangers of escaping from the ghetto, in late 1942:
‘To escape was easy,’ Idel Kagan later recalled. ‘But to escape – where to?’ As Kagan explained the local farmers ‘used to take away the Jews’ money, and hand over the Jews. They already had their money. So why to feed them for ever and a day? The Germans were winning the war.’
‘We had the facilities to escape,’ Kagan reiterated. ‘But the weather was against us. If somebody didn’t give you a hiding place, you’d freeze to death.’ There were hazards, even in hiding. ‘The little peasant boy used to give you away,’ Kagan reflected. ‘The population didn’t want you.’
Kagan decided, nevertheless to escape. He waited until the first snows, when the Germans guards would be preoccupied by the cold, and then escaped with fourteen others. The escapees walked through the snow for two to three hours. But crossing a river, Kagan fell through the ice. Regaining the bank, his body was so covered in ice that he could not keep up. When finally, and alone, he reached an isolated hut in the forest, he discovered he had just missed the partisans. ‘I felt I would freeze to death. I began to walk back to the camp. I didn’t want to freeze to death.’
Idel Kagan returned to Nowogrodek just in time. ‘My toes were already going black.’ Then, without iodine or bandages, his toes were cut off. His escape had failed, but he was still alive.’
In German-occupied White Russia, the five hundred surviving Jews of the five thousand Jews of Nowogrodek, remained alive in the ghetto labour camp, at the whim of their overseers. ‘They didn’t care if you didn’t work,’ Idel Kagan later recalled. ‘If you didn’t work, you will starve, and that’s that.’ But on May 7 there was a roll call. Kagan, having lost his toes after his unsuccessful escape bid four months earlier, watched the roll-call from his bed. ‘Suddenly I saw German and White Russian police. My mother came to the window. ‘Don’t fear. It’s nothing.’ I couldn’t bear the shouting of the people. I covered my ears with the pillow.’
During this unexpected ‘action’, half of the five hundred surviving Jews of Nowogrodek were killed, among them Idel Kagan’s mother Dvora, and his sixteen-year-old sister Nehama. He and his father survived. ‘You will remain until the end of the war,’ the Germans told them. ‘The Reich needs you.’
The Nowogrodek survivors formed an escape committee, and began to try to work out some means of escape from their labour camp.
On September 26th they were able to escape through the tunnel they had dug:
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.