by Dr. Betty Brodsky Cohen
As I am preparing for the 80th anniversary of the Novogrudok Tunnel Escape on September 26th and for the upcoming publication of my book Tunnel of Hope: The Great Escape from the Novogrudok Forced Labour Camp, I ask myself: Why does this date matter?
It matters for me personally because that was the day, against incomprehensible odds, my late mother, Fania Dunetz Brodsky, along with approximately 240 men and women, inmates of the Novogrudok Forced Labour Camp in what was then Poland (today Belarus), meticulously carried out what I have proven to be the most successful prisoner escape of the Holocaust through the longest World War II hand-dug escape tunnel.
Most of the inmates, among whom were also several children, were the last remnants of the once-proud, active Jewish communities of Novogrudok and the surrounding towns. Each had each lost countless members of their families, often slaughtered before their eyes.
Aware of evidence that their German captors soon planned to murder the vast majority of them, the idea to dig an escape tunnel with their bare hands and the most rudimentary self-made tools emerged as the best option to enable the inmates a chance at freedom. As the deadline for the great escape drew near, the organizers turned their attention to preparing an Escape List in which the order in which they were to crawl through the tunnel was recorded. This task fell to the inmate Yitzchak Rosenhaus.
Well over half a century later, during my first visit to Novogrudok, I was handed a worn-nearly-illegible copy of the Yiddish-language Escape List by Tamara Vershitskaya, Holocaust specialist in Novogrudok, now part of the Together Plan team. This list became the stimulus for my research. After devoting 15 years to the monumental challenge of determining the name, fate, and life story of each identified escapee, it is through their stories that we learn the details of this extraordinary escape, as well as the escapees’ unfaltering resolve to cling to life.
September 26th, then, has special meaning for me personally because that is the date that my mother was given the opportunity to survive, build a family, and bring me into the world. What happened on this date has personally taught me the power of resilience, determination, and perseverance.
The above is why September 26th matters to me personally, but September 26th should matter to anyone concerned with the power of meaning. Philosopher and former Chief Rabbi of the Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, the late Lord Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks, posits that under the most adverse of circumstances one must ask: “Is this disaster the end of my world or is it life calling on me to exercise heroic strength so that I can survive and help others to survive?” Finding their meaning in the sanctity of life, in their attempts to survive, it was life itself that ultimately called on the Novogrudok Labor Camp inmates to exercise the ”heroic strength” to survive that Rabbi Sacks refers to.
September 26th should also matter to anyone who appreciates the power of hope. In his magnum opus The Search for Meaning, psychiatrist, psychotherapist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl notes that from his observations in the camps, those prisoners without hope for a future were more likely than others to die of hopelessness than from lack of food or medical care. Even while acutely suffering, those whose hope was not utterly destroyed and were able to somehow look to the future were more likely to survive. When, in the spring of 1943, the inmates of the Novogrudok Labour Camp were assured that they would be received with open arms by the Bielski partisans, provided that they could reach the detachment in the dense Naliboki forest, 41 miles away, it was the Bielski detachment that became the address of hope for the desperate prisoners who were willing to risk their lives for a precious chance at freedom.
September 26th must matter if moral courage is something important to us. Yehuda Bauer, who wrote the Foreword to my book, insists that without the presence of rescuers or Righteous Gentiles, it would be impossible to teach the Holocaust due to the “unrelieved horror” this would evoke. As I believe that anyone who reached the Bielski partisans had to have been helped by non-Jews, September 26th is a day to honour those who planned and executed the escape, as well as those who made it possible by providing hope. Please join us on September 26th.
The Greatest Escape – an 80th Anniversary Tribute (online event)
26th September 1:00pm – 2.30pm BST Click here to book