Escape to Victory: The Jewish Inmates Who Tunneled Out of a Nazi Labor Camp

A new documentary charts the remarkable story of 250 Jewish escapees who successfully fled from a camp in Nowogródek. Haaretz meets the director and some of the survivors.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Riva Bernstein and Jack Kogan try and plot the path of their tunnel in the documentary film 'Escape.'
Riva Bernstein and Jack Kogan try and plot the path of their tunnel in the documentary film 'Escape.'Credit: Ilan Moran
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In May 1943, a dramatic decision was taken in a labor camp in the town of Nowogródek (then in eastern Poland, now part of Belarus). The final 250 Jews remaining in the camp decided to take their fate into their own hands and escape, before they too were exterminated by the Germans and local collaborators. In a vote taken by the camp’s inmates, the majority supported a daring escape plan. Opponents who said no one could possibly escape remained in the minority.

Shortly afterward, the inmates began excavating a tunnel, beginning beneath one of their beds and terminating on a hillside some 200 meters away, beyond the fence and guards. On September 26, all 250 inmates escaped through the tunnel. Most reached the nearby forest and joined the partisans, thus saving themselves. A few, however, were shot during the escape or were caught soon after.

This dramatic and exceptional story is already known to historians and was previously recorded in a book and museum exhibits. Somehow, though, it hasn’t assumed a place of honor in the collective memory of the Holocaust. However, when filmmaker Dror Schwartz learned of the story in 2011, he knew he had found his next work.

Similar local dramas from that period have been turned into films and reached a wider audience, but these were what might be termed “Hollywood-style” movies. “Escape from Sobibor” (1987), starring Alan Arkin and Rutger Hauer, documented the escape of inmates through the main gate of that death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. And the story of a group of Jews who hid in the sewers of Lvov was immortalized in the film “In Darkness” (2011), directed by Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland.

Schwartz, though, had different ideas of how to document the escape from Nowogródek. “I went to Belarus to see the site, and realized that part of the tunnel may still be intact,” he tells Haaretz, adding, “I started searching for it with an underground radar device.”

At this point, the idea for the documentary “Escape” (aka “Tunnel of Hope”) was still forming in his head. The movie (to be screened at the Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem cinematheques on April 9, 12 and 14, respectively, and on Channel 1 on April 18) combines testimonies from the last survivors of the escape with the dramatic modern-day search for the tunnel. “I was looking for a way of making history more accessible,” relates Schwartz. “The chance to look for the tunnel gave me that opportunity.”

Unpleasant memories

After a thorough investigation and several preparatory visits to Belarus, Schwartz returned in 2012 along with three of the survivors. Among them was Jack Kagan, who turned the dramatization of the escape story into his life’s mission. With them were 50 children and grandchildren of the escaping inmates. The team was joined by a local archaeologist, the curator of a local museum and local residents, who started digging in search of the tunnel – digging up some unpleasant memories in the process. Many were tearful when facing Schwartz’s camera.

One person who couldn’t go due to her age, but who received constant updates by phone from her grandchildren, was Fania Brodsky Donetz, the oldest living survivor. Despite her advanced age of 94, she is still lucid and full of zest – just as she was in her youth.

Last week, in her Jerusalem apartment, she conjured up some hair-raising, 70-year-old memories. She was born in 1920, in a Polish town whose inhabitants were mostly Jewish. It was captured by Russia in 1939 and Germany in 1941. Thousands of Jews were murdered in pits in nearby forests over the next few months, including her parents, brother and sister.

Fania and another brother were taken to nearby Nowogródek, where a ghetto and labor camp were constructed. Thanks to her knowledge of several languages, she became a secretary and translator; her brother worked as a cobbler. She repeatedly cheated death due to her resourcefulness, courage and audacity. Eyeing an opportunity, she befriended some guards, who let her brother escape. He survived and now lives in Jerusalem.

In May 1943, following another massacre of Jews by the Germans, the inmates decided to hatch an escape plan. A suggestion to attack the guards was deemed too dangerous, so the tunnel idea was selected. They dug the tunnel with makeshift tools, installing lighting and air vents along the way, as well as a warning bell, rails and a car for disposing of the earth. They hid this in attics and between the double walls in their shacks. They also disposed of some in the yard on Sundays, when the guards were drunk.

And so, four months later, on September 26, the signal was given and the inmates slipped into the tunnel, taking advantage of a stormy and windy night. Exiting the tunnel, they ran toward the forest and the partisans, who greeted them. After the war, Brodsky Donetz went to New York and only arrived in Israel a few years ago, to be close to her family.

Her granddaughter, Shiran Cohen, was part of the delegation to Belarus. “It was hard for me, the third generation, to dig voluntarily in the same place that they had to dig in order to survive,” admits Cohen. “The earth seemed sacred due to those buried there, but also defiled – earth on which horrific crimes were committed. It was like a time tunnel, accompanied by the emotions felt by the survivors. These were painful memories that perhaps should have remained covered,” she adds.

During the dig, several personal items were found. “We uncovered a small opening to the tunnel, which we then covered,” says Cohen. “We can never understand it all.”

A permanent memorial to the escape is now planned for the site in Belarus. Until then, “Escape” will serve as a fitting tribute.

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