Jack Kagan .
(photo credit: MICHAEL KAGAN)
Holocaust survivor and educator Jack Kagan died in London on December 18.
Described by The Jewish News as one of the “irreplaceable” Jewish heroes of our time, Kagan was a survivor with an incredible story. His son Michael, who lives in Jerusalem and has written about his father, retold his father’s story at the shiva in Jerusalem.
Kagan was born on April 7, 1929, in the town of Novogrudok (Navahrudak), Belarus. His family property backed onto the famous Navahrudak Yeshiva.
“He always reminisced about his shtetl as a corner of paradise where Jewish life was rich and trouble-free,” said Kagan’s son.
“The Germans entered the town on July 4, 1941. The fact that his family were leatherworkers saved them when the first major selection was made on December 8 (18 Kislev), 1941, when 5,200 Jews were murdered in the forests while my father and his family were taken to a work camp.”
Kagan escaped trying to reach the partisans. While crossing a brook he fell through the ice. Water poured into his wool-lined boots and began to freeze.
He was forced to crawl back to the camp.
“With no doctor available, a dentist cut Jack’s toes off with clippers and without an anesthetic, thereby saving his life.
“A few months later,” Michael continued with the story, “his mother, sister, aunt and uncle were taken out of the camp and killed. His father was transferred to another camp and was never seen again. In May 1943, an escape tunnel was planned. During the night of September 26, the entire camp of 220 Jews escaped through a narrow tunnel 200 meters long. Some 70 were killed, but my father made it through and eventually joined the Jewish Bielski partisans marching, as he said, not on his broken and bleeding feet but on the strength of his spirit.”
After the war, in 1946, Kagan entered England. In London, without money, language, family or connections, he managed to build a series of successful businesses in the plastics industry. In 1955, he married Barbara Steinfeld and together they created a Jewish home with their three children.
Over the years Kagan erected monuments to the murdered Jews of the town and established a museum to commemorate the Jewish partisans. He also published three books about his life “and the life of the shtetl he loved so much.”
Michael, Kagan’s eldest son, moved to Israel in 1977. Recently he fulfilled a lifelong dream of making a documentary film about the town and the little-known escape, which he likes to call “The Greater Escape.” With Kagan and three other escapees and assisted by Kagan’s grandchildren and 40 other children and grandchildren of escapees – including the uncle of Jared Kushner, whose grandmother escaped through the tunnel – he went back to the site of the work camp and ghetto, and dug up the horrific memories of the past.
The film, The Tunnel of Hope, is about the search for the remains of the Navahrudak tunnel. It was broadcast last year on Channel 1 and has been screened at festivals around the world.
There is also a riveting 54-minute interview on YouTube filmed at the Imperial War Museum in London where Kagan describes the remarkable events that began when he was barely 12 years old.
In 2013 Kagan was appointed a member of the Holocaust Commission by David Cameron, then British prime minister. The commission’s objective was to decide on the future of Holocaust education in the UK. He was also awarded the Medal of Heroism by the Belarusian government in 2014.
At the shiva held in Michael’s Jerusalem house, we were told about another extraordinary fact in the life of this amazing man.
Kagan passed away at daybreak on Sunday morning, December 18, which, in the Hebrew calendar was 18 Kislev, exactly 75 years after the first large massacre of Jews in his town.
He left his wife Barbara, three children, 10 grandchildren and four greatgrandchildren.
Michael and his wife, Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan are the founders of the Jerusalem Jewish Renewal Community – Nava Tehila. He continues to work on his father’s legacy and is currently working on another film which focuses on the role of some of the Righteous Gentiles that helped save the Jews of Navahrudak.Robert Hersowitz is a writer and management consultant who made aliya from London in 2014 and now lives in Jerusalem.