Starvation, torture and pain - Holocaust survivor's remarkable story

PUBLISHED: 13:21 22 May 2008 | UPDATED: 15:06 07 September 2010

Holocaust Survivor Jack Kagan

Holocaust Survivor Jack Kagan

© Nigel Sutton 17 Redington Rd,London,NW37QX. Phone 020 7794 3008. email pictures@nigelsuttonphotography.com

Holocaust survivor Jack Kagan opens up to Ham&High reporter Katie Davies about his experiences in a Nazi work camp, life in north London after the war and coming face to face with his family s killer. IT S easy to see that Jack Kagan makes the perfect

Holocaust survivor Jack Kagan opens up to Ham&High reporter

Katie Davies about his experiences in a Nazi work camp, life in north London after the war and coming face to face with his family's killer.

IT'S easy to see that Jack Kagan makes the perfect grandfather. Perhaps it's his kind, round face and constant concern that everyone around him is OK, the embarrassment of having his picture taken or the way he sits up with pride when he tells you about his 10 grandchildren and "another on the way".

Nothing gives away there is, or ever has been, anything other than happiness in Mr Kagan's life.

You can't see the fact that he watched his mother and sister murdered at the age of 14 or endured starvation, torture and pain. Physically, you barely notice the small limp he has from having his toes removed.

Indeed, the fact that you don't see Mr Kagan as a Holocaust survivor isn't as important to him as that you hear it.

"I have a duty to remember them - a duty to remember my town before the war," he says.

"No-one else will. There were 6,000 Jews living there and only 700 survived.

"When I came to London, I eventually made friends with people who had been through the same during the Holocaust.

"I feel very sorry for the ones who didn't talk. For me, talking about it is very important. I was lucky. I didn't have the nightmares and I think it was the quiet ones who did."

In Mr Kagan's case, his actions have been as loud as his words.

In Novogrodek - his hometown in Belorussia and the place where he and his family were held in a work camp - he paid for and erected monuments in honour of those killed.

He and his cousin, Dov Cohen, were the only two in his immediate family to escape and co-wrote a book on their experiences.

They joined the Bielski brothers - the three men behind a resistance movement fighting the Nazis from the forests of Eastern Europe.

In December, a Hollywood blockbuster called Defiance will be released, telling the story of the brothers and the people they saved - no doubt helped by the cousins' book.

"Now we have 007," Mr Kagan laughs, discussing the fact that Daniel Craig is the film's leading man.

The Belsize Square resident is also one of many survivors who are now visiting schools to give talks organised by Golders Green's London Jewish Cultural Centre.

The aim is partly to give history lessons but also to teach against prejudice.

But, importantly, they are also intended to resonate with immigrant children unsure of how to carve a place in this country.

"After the war, I decided to go to Minsk," Mr Kagan says. "I used all the money I had - 20 roubles to buy 20 flints. I went to the market place and sold them for 20 roubles each.

"Then I started buying and selling shoes, taking them from one place and selling them to another.

"I couldn't speak a word of English and I came here in 1950 with nothing.

"After the war, we didn't know what to do. I couldn't go back to school because there was no-one to support me. I had to push myself.

"I worked in a handbag factory for 18 months and saved up enough to open my own.

"It was very successful and then I started to make interiors for car firms. At 65, I retired.

"I couldn't have revenge for what they did - so instead I pushed myself."

The desire for survival and the will to never be defeated is the overriding emotion Mr Kagan recalls from his experiences.

Like many other survivors, he doesn't talk in terms of how he felt - it is always how many grams of bread they had, the percentage of people killed. The only way to keep going, he admits, was to suspend feeling.

"The Bielski brothers put me in the family group where I found my cousin had survived. It is very difficult to explain how I felt," he explains.

"We didn't know whether to be happy or cry. We had escaped - but we reminded each other of everything we lost.

"We had to think, 'We have survived this far but now we have to survive again. It doesn't matter what is ahead of us, we just have to stay alive'."

An understanding that revenge couldn't be achieved doesn't equal total forgiveness, however.

"I went back and set up the museum to the resistence.

"On my second visit there, the director said there was a man who wanted a reference from me.

"He came over and shook my hand. He told me he was a guard in the camp. In Russia, as a collaborater you only get a 50 per cent pension. He wanted a reference from me to make it 100 per cent. I asked him the dates when he worked and it turned out he was one of the guards who killed 250 people, including my mother and sister.

"I said to him, 'Don't you realise you killed my family.'

"He told me he had paid his dues because he was imprisoned for 25 years. I wiped my hand and walked away from him."

At the Novogrodek museum, experts have just found the 250metre tunnel where the emaciated prisoners dug through the ground to escape to the forest.

Many did not survive - but some like Mr Kagan found the resistance.

It wasn't the first time he tried to escape. He had to return to the camp after an earlier attempt - when he got frostbite in his toes and his father had to amputate them.

After that, he hid in the camp, surviving off scraps of food which others were kind enough to share with him.

"Only by seeing other people, could you imagine what you looked like, how thin you were," he says.

"The night before our escape, everyone was saying goodbye to each other. Everyone lined up to say it to me because no-one believed I would make it without toes."

Mr Kagan is looking forward to the film and hopes it does justice to his memories of the resistance and those who didn't make it that far.

"I think this sort of film is very important.

"It tells new generations that there were Jewish partisans fighting the Germans.

"I have seen cuttings and it looks good. I think it will bring our story to life and tell many people who don't know about it."

katie.davies@hamhigh.co.uk


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