The establishment of any museum begins with the exhibits. The fate of the Museum of Jewish Resistance in Novogrudok is an exception. It appeared due to Jack Kagan and Tamara Vershitskaya who were obsessed with a great desire to bring the truth and to preserve the history. Being the Director of the Museum of History and Regional Studies in Novogrudok Tamara Vershitskaya was deeply touched by the tragedy of the prisoners of the Novogrudok ghetto. Despite the fact that there were neither exhibits nor building, she established the only Holocaust Museum in Belarus. Today’s conversation with the curator of the Museum of Jewish resistance Tamara Vershitskaya is about the Museum and the projects it implements.
— Ms Vershitskaya, you have been studying the Holocaust for more than twenty-five years. Why did the history of the Jewish community become so important for you?
— The history of the Holocaust is so global and tragic and at the same time humane that it was impossible to remain indifferent. But it’s more fate than my choice. Until 1991, I knew nothing about Jews or shootings. Probably I wouldn’t have known anything if it wasn’t for Jack Kagan. Jack is a man for whom the study of the town’s history is a profession. And it was he who told me about the Novogrudok ghetto and the tragedy of the Jews. It was a real shock. If suddenly you discover something unknown, tragic and so large-scale but no one knows about it, you will feel confused. A lot of questions arose. How could this happen? Why didn’t anyone talk about it?
Learnt the fate of dozens of Jewish families, I really saw a simple man in the war.
The average person, without pathos and heroism of the Soviet stamps. I was struck that people, who have experienced such terrible moments, can talk about it. Jews, especially women, talked about suffering, bullying, and violence and at the same time about simple, everyday situations. And it is these terrible stories, in my opinion, help to imagine the real events. Today, when I walk along Hrodnenskaya Street, I know that a young Jewish couple was hiding in this house during the war. The young man and the girl tried to escape to the forest, but they were captured and shot by policemen. When I go along Mickiewicz St., I remember the story of a young Jewish girl. On her way into tortures she rushed to the nearest yard when the Germans got distracted. On the porch of the house there was a woman who worked as a teacher in the music school before the war. She gave the girl her coat and showed her where to run. The teacher was killed. …a lot of stories. They are told not only by Jews, but also by people who witnessed those terrible events. The tragedy of the Jews is our common pain, and it is important that we keep the memory of it together.
–What was the starting point for your awareness of the tragedy of the Jews in Novogrudok?
— In 1992, Jack Kagan first came to Novogrudok to find out where his parents were buried. It was Monday, the Museum of History and Regional Studies was closed, and we didn’t meet. Jack Kagan asked Raphael Gordin, the son of Dr. Gordin, to find out if there was anything about the Jews in the museum. What about the Jews? I misunderstood. I wrote a letter to Jack Kagan. So began our correspondence. Step by step Jack told me about the pre-war life of the Jews, about the shootings, escape through the tunnel. At my request, he wrote a letter about the action of execution, which later was published in the «Book of Memory». This was the beginning… And then there were many meetings with Jews who came to Novogrudok. Thanks to these meetings, Novogrudok seemed to be filled with the fate of Jewish families.
— 15 years passed between the first meeting with Jack Kagan and the opening of the Museum. Why such a long time? How did the establishment of the Museum begin?
–When in the 90s the Jews began to arrive in Novogrudok, they did not feel support neither from the government nor from the companies. People simply weren’t ready, didn’t know how to treat all this. And I could not leave them because I saw how important it was for Jews. I saw how they were looking for places where their homes used to be, where their relatives were buried.
I could not remain indifferent, I tried to help.
The authorities did not interfere, but did not help either. To establish an exhibition materials and tools were needed but we didn’t have them. In 2001, students of the Grodno State University carried out archaeological excavations at the Small Castle in the town. I asked Sergey Pivovarchik, who was in charge of the work, to conduct excavations on the territory of the former ghetto, near the building where the Museum is located today. They began to look for the tunnel through which the prisoners escaped from the ghetto. We found the excavator and dug a trench about twenty meters long. So we saw something like a tunnel and the remnants of wooden planks. Thus Jack Kagan’s stories were confirmed. Later we continued excavations in the building of the ghetto. We found a shovel, nails, spoon and tile. That’s all. How to establish an exposition with these items?
I asked Jack Kagan to help with pictures and memories. We met with Jack many times, he repeatedly came to Novogrudok. Thanks to his support and money the Museum was established. But the exhibition design was done by Sergey Simanyukov, ex-Director of the House Museum of the I Congress of the RSDLP in Minsk. Based on the memories of Jack Kagan and Leia Kushner, the names of the inhabitants of both rooms were restored.
Reconstruction of the interior of the barracks was made according to escapees’ and Jack Kagan’s drawings and descriptions. On the basis of pre-war photos the detailed model of the whole camp was made. I remember the opening day and Jack Hagan’s excitement, when he walked in the former barracks. 10 members of Kushner family and Leah, who escaped through the tunnel, came for the opening. Leia couldn’t walk. I will never forget how her grandchildren picked up a chair with their granny and brought her to the monument in Minskaya street, where her mother shot by the Germans was buried. The other escapees also came — Riva Bernstein, Israel Kalachik… Many of them were former partisans of the Bielski group. Today, hundreds of descendants of ghetto prisoners and former partisans have visited the Museum.
— There have been many meetings with descendants of the prisoners and partisans of the Bielski group. Tell us about the most memorable.
— In people I appreciate sincerity most of all. Among Jews I met different people, but such men, as former ghettos’ prisoners Jack Kagan and Israel Kalachik, only few. I must say that among those who survived the Holocaust, there are those who give many interviews, who are invited everywhere. And there are such as Israel Kalachik. He never gave an interview, almost never told anyone about the ghetto. The stories of such people are very valuable. Israel Kalacik is from Ivenets. In the ghetto in Korelichskaya St. he was with his father and aunt.
Israel was among the fifty people chosen to build the tunnel.
Only strong and short people (height of the tunnel of 70 centimeters) were chosen. When the time to run away came, his aunt, who was very sick, said she could not crawl two hundred meters. And he and his father stayed with her. In the attic, where the dug earth was hidden, they made a hiding place. And when everyone ran away, they hid there for eight days. They heard how Germans and policemen came to the barracks, how they were looking for escapees. And when everything went quiet they ran into the woods. After the war, Israel lived in Minsk, worked at the factory, and in the 80s moved to Israel. For the first time we learned about Kalachik only in 2014, when he and his daughter came to Novogrudok. There were many interesting meetings that year. For example, I met the daughter of Yudel Belsky. I’m sure there are still a lot of people to talk about.
– What is the task of the Museum of Jewish resistance?
– I am sure that the Museum should become a memorial center aimed at preserving history and educational work with people. It is necessary that there are not just tours, we need relevant topics that will respond to modern needs, extensive educational and educational work should be conducted. And not just Museum lessons, but a form of communication that modern youth is ready to accept. The work with people should be conducted in such a way that they feel the connection between the past and today. It is necessary to give a person the opportunity to hold in his hands some thing or object that will help to establish a connection with the events of the past.
When the tunnel is restored, visitors will be able to crawl these ten meters under the ground.
It will help everyone to feel and understand what was happening in the tunnel. The history of the Holocaust directs our town to become a memorial center for the spread of Holocaust education in Belarus. Of course, the task is large-scale. But global things start with little things. I am very glad that more and more people in our town understand the importance and necessity of the Museum of Jewish resistance and not only for Jews, but also for us, residents of the town. Many people see the importance of the Museum and are willing to help.
— In October 11 the celebrations near the Wall of Memory will be held at the Museum. Please tell us about the new monument and the events that will take place.
— The tunnel itself is only a tunnel. The most important thing is the people who were able to build it and make the most massive and successful escapes from the ghetto in Belarus. We need to know these people and their fate. In October 11 many guests, the descendants of the victims of the Holocaust, partisans of the Bielski group will come to Novogrudok. The opening of the Wall of Memory, on which the names of those who escaped through the tunnel are written, is an important event for Novogrudok.
This is our tribute to the courage and great desire to live of the prisoners of the Novogrudok ghetto.
This is our tribute. But this is not the end of the work to save memory, this is the beginning. The beginning of our awareness of the Holocaust. In order the tragedy of the Great Patriotic War never happened again, you need to know and remember its terrible lessons. Once the tunnel gave freedom and life to the prisoners, and today its restoration gives us hope to find in our hearts the light of kindness and humanity. I believe that each of us can find the light at the end of the tunnel.
By Elena Gantsevich
Translated by Helen Chal