The Other 'Great Escape': The Jews Who Tunneled Their Way to Freedom

A tunnel dug by desperate Jews escaping the Nazis is the subject of a fascinating new film.

Matthew Kalman
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The Tunnel.Credit: Michael Kagan
Matthew Kalman

It wasn’t the Nazis who cut off Jack Kagan’s toes, it was the Jews. Jack was only 13 years old and there was no doctor available, so a dentist did it, using his clippers. There was no anesthetic either, so he bit on a rag and tried not to scream while four people held him down. Jack says the flesh was dead, so it didn’t hurt much, but when they cut through the bones, it was agony.

It was just bad luck, really. Jack was trying to escape from the work camp in courthouse compound in the town of Novogrudok near Minsk in Belarus where he grew up, and he fell through some ice into a stream. It was December 1942, one of the coldest winters on record, and the snow was thick on the ground. He had been given a pair of thick felt boots especially for his escape, but soaked with freezing water they did more harm than good and turned to ice. Before long, Jack couldn’t feel his feet. He says it felt like he was walking on stilts. He was only a young boy but he realized that he would get frostbite and die. So he sneaked back, rejoining his parents in the courthouse compound where the Nazis were keeping 500 Jewish slave laborers in appalling conditions and close to starvation.

Despite the lost toes, Jack became a hero. Michael Kagan, Jack’s son, likes to call his dad “Jack the Giant-Killer.” I can see why. That small boy took on the Nazis and won.

Together with the director Dror Shwartz, Michael has made a new film, Tunnel of Hope, in which the children and grandchildren of Jack and other survivors of the Nazi occupation of Novogrudok return to the courthouse in an effort to rediscover the escape route that saved the remnant of this once-thriving Jewish community.

The 500 Jews that Jack rejoined after his first failed escape attempt were the lucky ones. Only months earlier, there had been 10,000 Jews herded into the town – 6,000 from Novogrudok and another 4,000 from the surrounding countryside. In the 18 months since the Germans invaded the town, chasing out the Russians who had arrived two years earlier, they had slaughtered more than 9,000 of them. Thousands had been taken away in trucks. Thousands more had been gunned down, naked, into huge burial pits at the side of the roads or in the forests

The Germans had signaled their intentions right from the start. Days after marching into town in July 1941, a German military band assembled in the main square and began playing music by Strauss. As the beautiful melodies drifted across the town, the German soldiers rounded up 52 prominent Jews in the square next to the orchestra and slaughtered them. Soon after, they assembled the orchestra again in the same place and, to the same melodies, murdered 11 nuns from the local convent.

“I wasn’t every far from there and I could hear the music,” Jack recalls.

Many Jews decided to escape to the forests.

After his first failed attempt he recuperated through the winter by hiding on the top bunk near the rafters. Fortunately, the few Jews left alive were filthy, diseased and crawling with lice, so the German guards never came in to check if anyone was skipping the slavery detail which made gloves, boots and clothes for the German army.

In May 1943, not long after Jack’s fourteenth birthday, the Germans summoned half of the remaining Jews, saying they were sending them to another place to work, and machine-gunned them to death.

“We worked for the German army and they needed us most, but they still killed them,” says Jack. “Dead Jews were more important than a army warm. We knew we were not going to survive.”

So the remaining Jews decided to escape. Using bits of metal shaped into digging tools, blankets sewn into dirt-removal bags, and wood stolen from the workshops, they began digging a tunnel under the a barbed wire fence that surrounded the compound into a nearby wheat field. From there, they hoped to reach a huge forest a day’s walk away where the Bielski brothers commanded a Jewish partisan group that attacked German army patrols and protected hundreds of Jewish civilians.

The tunnel was just 70cm square and 206 meters long. They even installed electric lights along its length without being discovered. It made the Great Escape look small.

“I was one of the last out,” says Jack. “When I came out there was already machine gun fire from the watchtowers.”

“The night was made to order. The searchlight was cut off. It was raining. It was black. You couldn’t see your own hand in front of your face,” he says. But it caused unexpected problems.

“Some people after coming out lost their direction. Instead of running towards the forest, they ran back towards the camp. Our mistake was we had electricity in the tunnel and darkness outside, so when the people came out from the light into the darkness, they couldn’t see and got completely confused. We weren’t afraid. The only thing to be afraid of was being caught alive.”

All 230 remaining Jews escaped that night; 170 survived. In Tunnel of Hope, the families of these extraordinary men, women and children return to the town to try and find the tunnel that saved their parents and grandparents. They encounter the families of those local families brave enough to help the Jews – many of whom were murdered by the Nazis as a punishment. For many of them, it is their first visit to the town that shaped the fate of their entire family.

Some of the survivors, like Jack, have spoken and written about their experiences. But others found it impossible. One of the participants in the film says she came along because her own father never spoke about those years. “I’m looking for an understanding of what happened to him,” she says. “I’m looking for a kind of closure.”

For Jack Kagan and his fellow survivors, the Novogrudok tunnel was the path to their future. For their children and grandchildren, the Tunnel of Hope is a route back into the lessons of the past.