Escape through the tunnel

An escape committee, led by Berl Yoselevitz, was established. It decided to attempt a mass break out from the Labour Camp. They had between them six rifles, and a few pistols and hand grenades.

The original plan was for a suicide attack on the guards, to attack the guards and run. Ninety-five per cent of the would-be escapees would have been killed. So the attack was postponed. It was then decided to dig a tunnel one hundred metres long to the other side of the barbed wire, into a field of growing wheat. To succeed would not only be a major engineering feat, but would also have to be carried out without discovery.
The work started, but had to be stopped for a while as there was not enough oxygen for the lamps to burn inside the tunnel. We had no electricity in our living quarters. Mr Rukovski, one of the inmates, was an electrician. He found the camp's main power cable leading to the workshops, and made a hidden switchboard, so that the camp searchlights could be turned on and off, and the tunnel could be lit up.

The joiners among the prisoners prepared railway lines and a trolley. The tailors prepared bags and reins to pull the trolley. The loft was reinforced, and the dug-out earth was hidden there. Work went on secretly twenty fours a day, seven days a week. The tunnel was 1.5 metres below ground, about 60 centimetres wide and 75 centimetres high - just enough for a person to crawl through.

In August 1943 the tunnel was nearly ready. Suddenly there was a serious setback, when the Germans brought in a tractor and cut the corn. The fear was that the tunnel might collapse from the weight of the tractor, but it did not. However, if we had escaped then, probably none of us would have survived, as the German army had brought in 52,000 soldiers to launch a month-long raid on the Soviet partisans -Operation Herman. The main German base was on Novogrudok.

Once the cover of the cornfield had been removed, we were forced to extend the tunnel by another 150 metres.
As the day of the escape grew nearer, a list was drawn up of the order in which we were to go through the tunnel. I was one of the last. In front of me was my friend Pesach Abramovitz.

The escape was on the night of 26 September 1943. It was a dark, stormy, moonless dark night, as if made to order. We assembled in the loft, very quietly, and waited in a very orderly manner. At 9 pm the line started moving forward. Fresh air could be coming in from the tunnel as we broke through to the outside world. We made a big mistake, however, by leaving on the lights in the tunnel. Coming out into terrible darkness, some became disorientated and ran towards the camp. The guards, not knowing what had happened, started shooting in all direction. But most of us ran towards the forest and freedom. Of those who escaped, about 170 made it to the partisans, and about eighty were caught and killed.

Ten elderly people had hidden in a specially built hiding place in the loft, thinking that they were too weak to escape through the tunnel. Five days later, after the Labour Camp had been abandoned by the Germans, they simply walked out of the main gates and were able to join the partisans.

The Nazis had wanted to declare the area Jude rein (free of Jews). The only Jews left in Western Belarus at the beginning of 1944 were ninety-eight Jews in Koldichevo concentration camp. They escaped in February 1944.