(No. 5/2004 - February 2004)
Editor: Fran Bock

This review by Dr. Leonid Smilovitsky of Surviving the Holocaust with the Russian Jewish Partisans, by Jack Kagan and Dov Cohen (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1998, 274 pp.) was originally published in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Vol. 15 (2), Fall 2001, pp. 335-341.

The Belarus SIG is grateful for the permission granted by Oxford University Press and by Dr. Michael Gelb of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. , and to republish Dr. Leonid Smilovitsky's article in the Belarus SIG Online Newsletter.

We also thank Dr. Smilovitsky for his scholarly contributions to our knowledge about the Jews in Belarus and for his permission to republish the article here.

This article is copyrighted by Holocaust and Genocide Studies, its publishers (Oxford University Press) and Dr. Leonid Smilovitsky.

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Novogrudok: A Recovered Page in the History of

the Holocaust in Belarus

by Leonid Smilovitsky, Ph.D.,

Diaspora Research Center, Lester & Sally Entin Faculty of the Humanities,

Tel Aviv University

Review of : Surviving the Holocaust with the Russian Jewish Partisans, Jack Kagan and Dov Cohen. London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1998. 274 pp.

The Holocaust was de facto a forbidden research topic in the former Soviet Bloc, and even writings about resistance to the Nazis were selective: in Belorussia they treated Belorussian partisans; in Poland, the Home Army and General Anders. While serious Holocaust scholarship has long existed in the West (1) and Israel (2), only recently has it appeared in Belorussia (3). This literature, however, remains narrow in scope and local in focus, often descriptive and even emotive. Belorussians are not typically well versed in the Western literature (4). Jack Kagan and Dov Cohen have helped fill a gap in Holocaust history in Belorussia with contributions to the Hebrew-language Memorial Book on Novogrudok, and now with this English-language publication (5).

Surviving the Holocaust with the Russian Jewish Partisans includes documents and photographs from archives in Belorussia, Russia, Israel, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. Readers learn that Novogrudok was one of the first centers of Belorussian nationhood in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; the birthplace of the great Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz; and one of the earliest Jewish settlements in the old Kingdom of Poland. Both Dov Cohen (Berl Kagan, b. 1922) and Jack (Idel ) Kagan (b. 1929) were imprisoned with their families in the Novogrudok Ghetto, and escaped to join the legendary Jewish partisan detachment headed by the Bielski brothers. Following liberation in 1944, fate separated the cousins . After eighteen months at a screening camp in Germany, Idel moved to England, where he started a successful business. Berl, on the other hand, went to Israel, where he served in military intelligence and worked in the Defense Ministry.

Their stories appear in two parts: Berl's, or "My Life", and Idel's, entitled "How I Survived." Both describe their families in the typical East European town of Novogrudok, whose 6,500 Jews (about half the population), resided in the town center, where they owned most stores and workshops. Belorussian peasants from surrounding villages brought everything from pocket watches to sewing machines to be fixed there. In the Kagan's recreation of the cooperative relationship between Jewish craftsmen/merchants and the majority population, they belie the myth of the exploitative Jew, revealing instead the crucial mediating role of Jews in the Belorussian economy.

Novogrudok's Jewish community boasted Hebrew and Yiddish schools, a vocational school (run by ORT, the Society for Vocational Labor), agricultural courses, a religious school (Toshia), the famous Beit-Yosef Yeshiva, a Yiddish theater, and a Jewish newspaper. The library had 7,000 volumes in Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, Russian, and German. The Maccabee Sports Club enjoyed great popularity, and a local bank served the community. Jews fostered the tradition of mutual aid, giving money to the local Jewish children's home, hospital, pharmacy, and retirement home. The Committee of the Red Star of David distributed medicine and food to the most needy, and a soup kitchen served up to 650 meals per day.

The community divided its sympathies among various parties and movements, religious (Misnaggedim, Hasidim) and secular (Zionists, revisionists, communists, Bundists, and others). Their differences never became violent, and the city in general suffered minimally from crime. Further, no one disturbed the peace of the Jewish community on Saturdays. After Polish strongman Joseph Pilsudski's (6)death in 1935, and the subsequent deterioration of the situation of Poland's Jews, Novogrudok was spared pogroms, possibly because the Jews contributed generously to the mayor and chief of police. On the whole, even the prewar policy of polonization did not disturb the traditional cultural autonomy of Novogrudok's Jews.

Any tranquility Novogrudok might have enjoyed was shattered in September 1939, when Germany and the U.S.S.R. partitioned Poland. Novogrudok fell to the Soviet sphere (henceforth Western Belorussia), and most Jews welcomed the Red Army. Whether communists or not, they viewed the U.S.S.R. as a society based on social justice, one clearly preferable to Nazi Germany. Reality soon set in, however, as the Soviets nationalized the private sector, practically forbade Jewish religious practice, dissolved public organizations, changed the schools to the de-nationalized and atheistic Soviet curricula, and banned the Hebrew language. The yeshiva escaped to Wilno (Vilnius), capital of a still independent Lithuania (7). Many Jewish "capitalists" and non-communist political leaders were deported with their families deep into Soviet territory, and the new authorities fostered a system of denouncing "anti-Soviet elements" to the secret police (8).

On June 28, 1941, six days after the onset of Operation Barbarossa, a German air raid destroyed almost the entire center of Novogrudok. On July 2, perhaps emboldened by the Nazis' imminent arrival, Belorussians and Poles pillaged Jewish businesses and homes, expelling the inhabitants to "prepare" the town for its new masters. The Nazis occupied Novogrudok from July 4, 1941 to July 8, 1944. Persecution of the Jews began immediately, and many soon rued their naive faith in the invincibility of Soviet defenses, or in the civility of the Germans. On July 26, 1941 the occupiers publicly shot fifty-two Jewish "hostages", to the approbation of some Poles and Belorussians.

The first mass killings took place in December 1941 after the Germans screened out some 1,300 healthy skilled workers. These workers were confined to a ghetto in the suburb of Peresika. A Judenrat and Jewish police were set up, and everyone from twelve to sixty had to perform compulsory labor. While it was permitted to buy food from local peasants, leaving the ghetto was difficult and everyone returning from work was searched. Twelve-year-old Idel risked his life to smuggle food for his family.

The Novogrudok prisoners first turned to bribery in the hope of obtaining better jobs, receiving more food, and surviving the selections. Some believed obedience and hard work would save them. Ultimately, however, it became clear that their only escape lay with the partisans, the first news of whom arrived in February 1942. When young Jews began slipping away to the forests, the Germans strengthened the guard and shot the first Judenrat. In the summer of 1942, mass shootings recommenced.

One of the most gripping parts of the Kagans' book is their account of the underground escape of 170 Novogrudok Ghetto Jews (other sources say 190). For four months during the summer of 1943, dozens of prisoners observed strict silence while laboring through the nights on a tunnel 1.5 meters underground, 250 meters long, and sixty centimeters in diameter. During this work, eighty people died at the hands of the Nazis, but not one betrayed the operation.

Most of the escapees joined the Bielski partisans, and the authors describe their Jewish family camp and the story of the four Bielski brothers in detail. While adding to what we already know about these heroes and their forest communities (9), the Kagans offer new evidence that underground publications in the Warsaw Ghetto cited the partisans shortly before their own uprising. The Jewish family camps in Belorussia were, after all, unique in Nazi-occupied Europe. Since their purpose was more to save Jews than carry out armed resistance, the camps attracted people who were unfit for armed combat, including women, children, and the elderly. Most family camps maintained close contact with the partisans, benefited from their protection, and rendered them material and technical support.

The Kagans' book is particularly recommended for its unflinching objectivity. It records the widespread anti-Semitism of the Belorussian partisans, as well as the persecution of Jews at the hands of the Polish Home Army and units of the "Peoples Armed Forces." Nor do the authors shrink from the story of Haim Lantzman, whom the Nazis tried to use as a provocateur. Bielski sentries detained Lantzman in February 1943. His hand had a bullet hole in it, which he claimed to have received during an Aktion in Novogrudok. But Lantzman's behavior and the story itself seemed suspect, and he was placed under observation. After Haim was caught trying to slip away, he confessed that the Gestapo had arrested his wife and promised to spare her life if he revealed the partisans' whereabouts. To make his story plausible, they shot him in the hand. Lantzman begged forgiveness, but the partisan court sentenced him to death.

German, Russian, and Belorussian documents (in English translation) lend further interest to Surviving the Holocaust. These include reports and decrees of the German command, leaflets and operational accounts from both sides, and statistical data on the ethnic, social, professional, and age attributes of partisan formations. We learn, for example, that 579 partisans in the "Forward!" Brigade included 247 Belorussians, 108 Russians, 27 Ukrainians, 7 Poles, and 106 Jews. The "Leninist Komsomol" had 60 Jews out of 222 fighters, and the 1,140 member "Chkalov" Brigade had 239 Jews. These data, much of which the Kagans obtained during a 1993 trip to Novogrudok, refute the myth of Jewish submissiveness.

Most Belorussians have little knowledge of the Holocaust or even of the fact that, until quite recently, Novogrudok had been home to a centuries-old Jewish community numbering in the thousands. This is because the Soviet government decided to conceal the full truth about the genocide. The February 7, 1945 declaration of the Extraordinary State Commission of the USSR on the atrocities of the German-Fascist invaders and their accomplices (10) notes only that during their occupation of Novogrudok, the Nazis murdered 17,000 "Soviet citizens" (standard language through the late 1980s), and drove another 10,000 into "German slavery." Nowhere did the word "Jew" appear in the report (11).

Between 1989 and 1994, government officials liberalized archival research on the Nazi genocide in Belorussia. In July 1996, however, independent Belarus's new "Procedures Governing Access to Documents Containing Information Relating to the Secret Private Life of Citizens" denied historians information about Belorussians accused of treason, desertion, or collaboration. This rule has since been extended to functionaries in the Nazis' puppet police, citizens who voluntarily left for Germany, and KGB records on citizens repatriated to the U.S.S.R. in 1945-46 from Germany and countries occupied by or allied with it during the war (12).

If the Kagans tried to find out today who had shot their relatives in Novogrudok in 1941-44, they would be turned down on the basis of Article 28 of the latest constitution of the Republic of Belarus. The author of this review discovered in Yad Vashem Archives the names of those directly responsible for mass killings in Novogrudok: gebietskommissar Traub and Gestapo employees Schit, Felgenhauer, Reuter, Schulz, and others (13). However, further research on local accomplices is currently impossible.

The Kagans tell us they survived by a quirk of fate, but it took willpower, persistence, intelligence, and courage to take advantage of fate's quirk. And how many other Belorussian Jews were less fortunate? Surviving the Holocaust with the Russian Jewish Partisans memorializes their lives, while expanding our knowledge of the Holocaust in Belorussia.


1. John A. Armstrong, ed., Soviet Partisans in World War II (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964); Lester Samuel Eckman, The Jewish Resistance: The History of the Jewish Partisans in Lithuania and White Russia During the Nazi Occupation, 1940-1945 (New York: Shengold, 1977); Charles Gelman, Do Not Go Gentle: A Merrier of Jewish Resistance in Poland, 1941-1945 (Hamden, CT: Archon, 1989); John Loftus, The Belarus Secret: Nazi War Crimes Trials and War Criminals, 1939-1945 (New York: Knopf, 1982); Lucjan Dobroszycki and Jeffrey S. Gurock, eds., The Holocaust in the Soviet Union and the Sources on the Destruction of the Jews in the Nazi-Occupied Territories of the USSR, 194 1-1945 (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1993); Yehoshua R. Buchler, "Local Police Force Participation in the Extermination of Jews in Occupied Soviet Territory," Shvut 4:20 (1996), pp. 79-99; V. Levin and D. Meltzer, Chernaia Kniga s krasnymi stranitsami: Tragediia i geroizm evreev Belorussii [Black Book with Red Pages: The Tragedy and Heroism of the Jews of Belorussia] (Baltimore: Vestnik, 1996); Hannes Heer, "Killing Fields: The Wehrmacht and the Holocaust in Belorussia, 1941-1942," Holocaust and Genocide Studies 11:1 (Spring 1997), pp. 79-101.

2. Sefer ha-Partizanim ha-Yehudim [The Book of Jewish Partisans] (Merhavyah: Sifriyat Po' alim, 1958); Black Book of the Localities Whose Jewish Population Was Exterminated by the Nazis (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1965); Jack Nusan Porter, ed., Jewish Partisans: A Documentary of Jewish Resistance in the Soviet Union during WWII (Washington: University Press of America, 1982); Aryeh Tartakower, ed., Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1971); Yitzhak Arad, Shmuel Krakowski, and Shmuel Spector, eds., The Einsatzgruppen Reports: Selections from the Dispatches of Nazi Death Squads' Campaign Against the Jews, July 1941-January 1943 (New York: The Holocaust Library, 1989); Moshe Kalchheim, ed., Be-komah zekufah, 1939-1945: Perakim be-toldot ha-lehimah ha-partizanit be-ya' arot Narots' [With Proud Bearing, 1939-1945: Chapters in the History of Jewish Resistance in the Naroch Forests] (Tel Aviv: Irgun ha-partizanim, lohame ha-mahtarot u-morde ha-geta'ot be- Yisrael, 1991); Shmuel Spector and Bracha Freundlich, eds., Lost Jewish Worlds: The Communities of Grodno, Lida. Olkieniki. Vishay (Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, 1996).

3. V. Samovich, Rasstreliannye, zamuchennye i poveshennye: Fashistskii genotsid v Breste [The Shot, the Tortured, and the Hanged: The Fascist Genocide in Brest] (Brest, 1994); R. Chemoglazova, Tragediia evreev Belorussii v gody nemetskoi okkupatsii, 1941-1944 gg.: Sbornik dokumentov i materialov [The Tragedy of the Jews of Belorussia During the Years of German Occupation, 1941-1944: Documents and Materials] (Minsk: la. B. Dremach and E. S. Gal'perin, 1995); E. Rozenblat and I. Elenskaia, Pinskie evrei, 1939-1944 [The Jews of Pinsk, 1939-1944] (Brest: Brestskii Gosudarstvennyi Universitet, 1997); G. Vinnitsa, Slovo pamiati [The Word of Memory] (Orsha, 1997); S. Margolina, Ostat' sia zhit ' [To Stay Alive] (Minsk: P. "Natako,"1997); M. Ryvkin and A. Shulman, Porodnennye voinoi [Made Brothers by War] (Vitebsk, 1997); B. Sherman, Baranovichskoe getto: Koldychevskii lager' smerti [The Baranovichi Ghetto: The Koldychev Death camp] (Baranovichi, 1997).

4. Exceptions are Chemoglazova, and Rosenblat and Elenskaia.

5. Yehoshua Jaffe and Yitzhak Alperovich, eds., Be geto Novogrudek u be tnuah ha-partizanit: Ha-lehima ha-partizanit be mizgaret ahdut shel ahim Bielski {[In Novogrodok and the Partisan Movement [sic]: The Memorial Book] (Tel Aviv, 1988).

6. Josef Pilsudski (1867-1935), Polish statesman, marshal (1920), head of the Polish state 1919-1922; in 1926 established authoritarian regime; in 1931 abolished laws discriminating against Jews, tried to reduce Jewish population by cooperation with Zionist organizations to facilitate emigration to Palestine, sending arms to Jewish paramilitary organizations there, and attempting to influence Britain to permit expanded Jewish immigration.

7. Lithuania students and faculty of the Yeshiva saved their lives by obtaining Japanese visas. Cf. Zorach Warhaftig, Utselevshte v gody Katastrofy {[Survivors of the Catastrophe] (Jerusalem, 1994), pp. 61-63, 65-66,74-76.

8. Shalom Cholawski, "Soviet Rule in Western Byelorussia, 1939-1941, and the Repercussions for the Jewish Community During the Holocaust," World Congress of Jewish Studies (Jerusalem, 1980); Ben-Cion Pinchuck, Shtetl Jews Under Soviet Rule: Eastern Poland on the Eve of the Holocaust (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990); Emanuel Ioffe and Viacheslav Selemenev, "Jewish Refugees from Poland in Belorussia, 1939-1940: Documents," Jews in Eastern Europe 32:1 (1997), pp. 45-60.

9. Nechama Tec, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans: The Story of the Largest Anned Rescue of Jews by Jews During WWII, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

10. The Extraordinary State Commission was created November 2, 1942 by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet under the chairmanship of N. M. Shvernik; P. K. Ponomarenko chaired its branch in Belorussia from its inception in early 1944 until its affairs were wrapped up in September 1945. Regional commissions in Baranovichi, Bobruisk, Brest, Gomel , Grodno, Minsk, Molodechno, Mogilev, Pinsk, Polesie, and Polotsk gathered documentation and testimonies; each district had its own subordinate commission. Statements and findings were widely used during trials at Nuremberg, Minsk, Bobruisk, Gomel , and elsewhere.

11. Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii [State Archives of the Russian Federation], f. 7021, op. 81, d. 102, l. 103.

12. The complete instruction was confirmed by the Chairman of the Committee on Archives and Records of the Republic of Belarus (No. 21 of July 3, 1996).

13. Yad Vashem Archives. M-33/1159.

Copyright 2004 Belarus SIG, Holocaust & Genocide Studies (Oxford University Press) and

Dr. Leonid Smilovitsky

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