80 years on from the Holocaust, it is the young who are our hope

On Rosh Hashanah, I think of a 14-year-old boy who so determined to survive that he, along with 150 others, dug himself out of a labour camp


Two lit shabbat candles in silver candlesticks

September 14, 2023 15:11

Eighty years ago this month, one week before Rosh Hashanah in 1943, a 14-year-old boy was so determined to survive that he, along with 150 others, dug himself out of a labour camp in the Nowogródek Ghetto in Belarus.

He would later describe the day of the escape as one drenched in darkness, rain and thunder — the weather as dramatic as the events it concealed.

Jack Kagan had heard about a group of partisans — led by the now legendary Bielski brothers — who were living in the forests nearby and who were offering a safe haven to Jews who could escape.

The skill and ingenuity that went into planning the escape, mapping the direction of the 250m tunnel and using depleted reserves of energy to dig with just a spoon as a tool, are astonishing.

The way that these starving prisoners, holding onto a scrap of hope, worked together is incredible.

A skilled electrician was able to provide light for the tunnel and a bell to signal danger. A narrow trolley was built to transport earth up and out of the tunnel as progress was made. A list outlining the order in which captives were to escape was drawn up.

Prisoners donated their blankets, a valuable resource in the camps, to be sewn together to create sacks for the earth to be carried out in.

The length of the tunnel was increased when the wheat field, which was to provide cover for their escape, was ploughed for the harvest.

Every detail, every effort was carefully planned and executed because the stakes were so high: survival.

Those 150 prisoners left a place of Jewish death to create a place of Jewish life.

They succeeded, and they marked the new year in a new place. Still in huge danger, still with the crushing fear and uncertainty, but, perhaps finally, with a sense of self-determination, and a sense of hope.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah 80 years on, I think about Jack. I am reminded of his strength and of his hope. I am reminded of his unstoppable conviction after the war that the world should know what had happened to him, his family, and the Jews who, somehow, despite all odds, had survived in the forest.

And as I think of the hope that Jack and his fellow escapees must have felt on that first Rosh Hashanah in the forest, I think of the young people we work with today. They are our source of hope, 80 years on.

Through the Holocaust Educational Trust, they have been able to listen to the eyewitnesses to the Holocaust, and I know they will carry these stories with them for the rest of their lives.

They will always remember the men and women who survived, and their families who did not. They will always remember the points of light, like Jack’s escape, amongst the darkness of the Holocaust, and they will carry this flame onwards, for the next generation.

I know that they will use what they have learnt to ensure that the horrors of the past are never repeated, that hatred and antisemitism is never again allowed to proliferate.

As one of our ambassadors told guests at the Trust’s appeal dinner earlier this week: “Failing to act after hearing survivors’ pleas to combat prejudice, despite witnessing hatred, would be the greatest insult.”

Karen Pollock CBE is the chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust

September 14, 2023 15:11

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