A tunnel of hope in the Holocaust

Fania Dunetz Brodsky and the most successful escape of the Shoah

Fania Dunetz after the war circa 1945 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Fania Dunetz after the war circa 1945
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There are still stories to relate from the Holocaust, still horror tales of whole communities that were liquidated and the suffering endured by their survivors, but there are also heroic, almost unbelievable narratives of rebellions, escape projects and uprisings against the Nazis that are still coming to light 77 years after they occurred.
One is the little know escape from the Novogrudok (Navardok) labor camp in Belarus (White Russia) via an underground tunnel dug by the inmates over a period of several months.
The saga has been written up by the daughter of one of the survivors, Batya (Betty) Cohen Brodsky – whose 100-year-old mother, Fania (Fanny) Dunetz Brodsky, was one of the escapees. It was also made into a movie by Dror H. Shwartz based on an emotional visit to the site of the tunnel and labor camp in 2013. Three survivors and many offspring of the approximately 230 heroes participated in the trip. The purpose was to discover the actual tunnel and the site of their ordeal in September, 1943. (You can watch the film at youtube.com/watch?v=4rwLN5ZGbQw&feature=youtube) The story as told by Fanny describes her childhood in a bustling Eastern Europe stethl called Zhetl where the majority of the population were Jewish. The famous Chofetz Chaim lived there in his earlier years before moving to Radin. The town rabbi was Rav Shlomo Zalman Sorozkin from a distinguished rabbinic dynasty. Fania, one of four children, must have been a gifted student because she finished the Polish high school in Nodogrodok where few Jews were accepted and went on to study for a year in the Bialstok Teachers’ Seminary.
But her real gift was languages (which may have saved her life) and she quickly became fluent in Polish, Russian, German, Yiddish, English, Latin and Hebrew.  She taught Russian between 1939-41 but their quiet life came to an end in July 4, l941 when the Germans captured the area and began persecuting the Jews from Day 1. Restrictions followed restrictions.
The Nazis issued their orders to the Judenrat (the local Jewish community’s  representatives, which in this case was secretly connected to the resistance). Fania became indispensable as that committee’s secretary and translator.
The Jews of Zhetl were packed into a ghetto, as in so many others communities, and then came the sad day when 1,500 of the oldest members, the children and the women were massacred on April 30, 1942. Later, on August 6 of the same year an additional 2,500 Jews were marched to the cemetery and machine gunned, while the neighboring citizens and German soldiers from the barracks looked on “for the show.” Fania’s parents, siblings, uncles and other relatives were murdered. Only she and her younger brother, Motl remained.
The Nazis kept 500 of the more skilled workers alive to work for them, she as a secretary and translator, Motl as a carpenter who made wooded shoes, but even of this small number, half were eliminated in an additional action on May 7,1943. The remaining 250 skilled slave workers knew it was only a matter of time until they too would be killed. They discussed armed resistance “since if even 10 of us remain it’s better than waiting for our death.” Fania was offered the opportunity to escape into the nearby forest by someone who knew her from before, but she gave up her place for her brother Motl who actually survived and joined the partisans. Neither of the siblings knew the other was alive, and they met by chance after the war in the town marketplace.
The idea of digging an escape tunnel from the skilled workers’ barracks to the nearby wheat field was considered, discarded and then brought up again. Remember that these remaining Jews in the ghetto were relatively young people, with talents and motivation to stay alive. One of the slave workers, Jack Kagan,  actually did leave the confines of the barrack, in mid-December, but almost froze to death.  He came upon a cottage where a dog catcher lived with his family, the Bobrowskis, religious Christian who helped other escaping Jews.
The family gave him hot food, but he decided to return to the barracks since his chances for survival were nil.  His boots had frozen to his feet and once removed showed that all his toes had turned black and had to be amputated. Kagan survived but unfortunately the righteous gentiles were caught and executed by the Nazis and their six children were sent to concentration camps in Germany. Five of them returned after the war, and their parents are buried in the courtyard of their family home.
A committee was formed to plan an escape and two thirds of the prisoners voted  in favor of a tunnel plan. They began working under one of the beds using spoons, scrapers, pieces of metal, wood and anything else that could be implemented to dig the tunnel. Dirt was collected in homemade bags and discarded.
The work was carried out at night, after long hours of slave labor, with most working two hour shifts in the narrow, 60 by 60 cm. hole, just enough room for a normal sized adult to squeeze through. One third of the slave laborers thought it was suicide to try and escape via a tunnel and the guards would surely detect them when they emerged into the wheat field. Nevertheless they too went along with the actual breakout.
After a few meters of digging they encountered their first challenge – the extreme dark  at night under the bed made work impossible.  A very skillful electrician called Rakovsky managed to connect to the power source in the camp and even found equipment to set up lighting inside the tunnel.  Later he was able to find the source of electricity for the main searchlight and neutralized it on the night of the escape.  People worked in shifts and exchanged tasks, from digging, carrying the dirt back to its hiding place, distributing the dirt and keeping the tunnel going in the right direction, by lifting the roof of their barracks ever so slightly during day light to see the direction to be taken.
The escape was planned for a moonless night on a Sunday in mid-August when the soldiers were often drunk. The day when they wanted to reach the tall standing wheat field, farmers started harvesting the stalks which were supposed to hide the escapees, so the plan had to be changed, to extend the tunnel another 100 meters, to the edge of a forest.  Finally that too was achieved.
Everyone was ready to crawl through and run quickly into the trees and meet up with partisans. However, it was a wild stormy night and even though the crawl itself went very quickly, almost unimaginably quickly, once they came to the exit, many of the survivors became disoriented, some even running back toward the camp.
Somehow many of them reached the forest safely and even there kept running, not believing that they were actually free. However, the guards noticed some movement out in the fields. They thought that perhaps a partisan group in the area was coming to liberate the prisoners and started shooting indiscriminately. Some were killed and more than a third were recaptured and tortured to death.  The remaining group of 123 regrouped in the forest and it took them a number of days to latch up with a partisan groups of which there  were several in the area.  One group was very suspicious of the motley group and wanted to shoot the escapees on the spot. Luckily their leader prevented this.
Fania and her friends joined the famous Bielski Jewish partisan group.  Here too her translating skills were very much in need.  She also worked as a nurse until she caught typus and that ended her medical career. Most of the escapees not only survived, but built productive lives all over the world.  Many told their children and grandchildren about their extraordinary escape and that ignited a desire for many of the offspring to actually travel back to Belarus and see for themselves the site.
After long negotiations with the authorities and contact with the government archaeologist, a trip to Novogrudok was organized. For almost a week a bulldozer and local authorities got directions on the spot from the three elderly escapees who were able to take part.  They and  50 children and grandchildren, dug where they thought the remains of the tunnel should be. All assisted in the work, but for a disappointing five days they found nothing more than a few wooded support pieces and a scraper or two.  Discovering the remains of electrical wiring and eventually the mouth of the tunnel itself proved to be very emotional.
Grandchildren called their home bound grandparents back home in the US or Israel with the news: “We’ve discovered your tunnel, grandma. We’ve discovered the tunnel!” Pictures were taken, the authorities were notified of the find with hopes of a memorial being established and stories were  exchanged about each survivor’s memory.
Two more groups also visited the tunnel although smaller ones; in October 2018 some descedants came for the 75th anniversary of the liberation, and in July 2019 they were invited for the dedication of a memorial wall which held all the names of the slave labor camp escapees.
But back in l945, after being liberated by the Russians and leaving the partisan group, Fania herself together with her brother Motl returned to Zhetl, where they were not greeted with joy.
They found a family of squatters living in their parents’ home who allowed them a room in which to stay until they “found” themselves. Fania actually sold them the house for a winter coat. She engaged in various business ventures and finished her higher education in a nearby town, while Motl became a teacher, at first without any training. However, he became so good at it that he went on to get a BA and MA in education. This led to an illustrious career in the US and in Israel, where he became a senior administrator in the Education Ministry.
Long before that, he and Fania moved to a D.P. camp to get out of Europe and it was there that Fania met her husband, also a Holocaust survivor, who was camp administrator. In 1949, they moved to New York. Now a widow, she lives in Israel and has a son, Steven, and daughter, Betty. She has lived to see four generations – two children, two grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.
Betty recently completed writing the story of the tunnel of hope  Through her research, she has proved that the escape in Novogrudok by Jewish inmates, largely unknown thus far, is undoubtedly the most successful of all escapes during the Holocaust. She has identified 229 escapees and 123 survivors.
It is an extraordinary story from an extraordinary period in history.