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March 26, 2017 6:21 am

New Documentary Details Extraordinary Holocaust Escape

avatar by Deborah Fineblum /

Jack Kagan, who escaped the Nazi labor camp of Novogrudok. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Kagan. – The mission to tell the world the story of Jack Kagan’s risky escape from a Nazi labor camp consumed Kagan and his son Michael for years. Now, in the new documentary “Tunnel of Hope,” the record that the duo fought to keep alive will be preserved for coming generations.

“He was driven, determined to get it out there,” said Michael, about his father’s lifelong undertaking to tell people his personal history, as well as that of the thousands of Jews murdered in his hometown of Novogrudok (in Belarus). Jack’s projects included creating a museum at the site of his escape, and erecting marble monuments at the graves those slain.

The documentary covers a 13-year-old Jack’s escape in 1943, together with a ragtag group of 240 Jews, through a tunnel dug over one painstaking week, which took them out of the camp and into the nearby forest. They were the last remaining survivors of some 11,000 Jews from the region that had been decimated by two major massacres in the years prior, together with starvation and illness. Jack himself had lost all 10 toes to frostbite. (In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Jack takes off his shoe to reveal his foot with no toes.) He was recovering from their amputation when he overheard the adults — led by Berel Yoselevich — formulating the escape plan.

The prisoners covered for each other in the camp’s shoemaking and woodworking factories, as they took shifts excavating a 2-by-2-foot tunnel. Two-thirds of those who made it out through that tunnel survived the war, with most of them — including Jack — joining the famed Bielski partisans. Some nine months later, in June 1944, Jack was among those liberated by the Soviets.

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A handful of prisoners, either fearful of Nazi retribution or too weak to crawl through the tunnel, turned down the opportunity to escape, but they successfully hid behind a mock wall for three days. The Germans soon abandoned the camp, and the remaining Jews joined the partisans in the forest.

The film, which took three years to complete, features Jack and other escapees recounting the roundups, selections and mass shootings that destroyed their communities, and the feeling of increasing desperation that made them willing to risk everything for a slim chance at survival.

Also interviewed were survivors’ non-Jewish neighbors, one of whom tearfully recalls the massacres. Another local speaks proudly about the Jewish lives his family saved, and recounts that his great-grandfather was killed by the Nazis for his heroism.

When Michael conceived the idea for the documentary, he received the support of family friend Murray Kushner — himself the son of Bielski partisans, and the uncle of President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared — and recruited Dror Shwartz, a filmmaker who has worked at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance center.

In 2012, Michael and Shwartz scouted the former Novogrudok labor camp site, now an agricultural college, and won permission to bring in escapees’ descendants to dig for the tunnel. Three of the survivors, including Jack, were among the group of 55 individuals who made the trip from Israel, the UK and the US for the excavation.

“My mother was overjoyed when my kids called her to say, ‘We found the tunnel,’” reports Betty Cohen of Jerusalem, who is writing a book on the fates of all 230 escapees, including her 96-year-old mother Fania Brodsky. “Of all the tales of the Shoah, this is one that shows how resilient and resourceful the Jews were.”

“Seeing where it happened made it all the more real, and gave us all some closure,” said 26-year-old Itai Kagan, Jack’s grandson. “We grandchildren have more distance. To us, my grandfather’s story is more blessing than burden.”

Last December, on the 75th anniversary of the massacre of 5,200 of Novogrudok’s Jews, Jack died at 87. Michael said he is glad his father lived long enough to be featured in the film, calling it a tribute “to both his tenacity and the tenacity of Jewish life.”

David Silberklang, the senior historian for Yad Vashem’s Research Institute, lauds the film for spotlighting the story behind the story. “It’s important to know that they decided to take along the injured, like Jack. They said, ‘It’s going to be all of us or none of us.’ That’s a very Jewish response to the Holocaust.”

In addition to the film, which is now being broadcast by i24 News across the US, London’s Imperial War Museum houses a model of the Novogrudok labor camp and a tunnel for children to crawl through. The Kagan family’s story is also among those featured in Berlin’s official Holocaust memorial.

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