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Great Escape

On Yom HaShoah, one woman’s story of tunneling from a Polish work camp

Gila Lyons
April 09, 2010

I met Sonya Oshman at the world premiere of A Partisan Returns: The Legacy of Two Sisters, a documentary about the 1943 escape of 250 Jews, including Sonya, from a work camp in Poland through a 700-foot tunnel dug by hand. A friend had hired me to staff the merchandise table. When I finished selling T-shirts, I stepped into the dark auditorium to listen to three women who had recently traveled back to their hometown of Novogrudek, in eastern Poland, to visit the mass grave in which their relatives were buried.

Sonya’s speech at the podium impressed on me her sheer will to survive, gratitude for surviving, and mission to share her story. Her drive filled me with awe, but also with dread. What, I wondered, infused my life with comparable purpose and fiery will? For me, and I imagine for my peers, Holocaust stories serve a similar function as the Torah did for pre-World War II generations: They offer lessons on morality, love, death, betrayal, and triumph and provide a strong reason for maintaining a Jewish identity.

Several weeks after the film screening, I sat in Sonya Oshman’s sunny living room at her assisted-living facility in New Jersey. At 86, she was small but sturdy, with feathery brown hair, round deep-set eyes, and thin eyebrows that arched upwards when she smiled. She wore a wool vest over her button-down shirt and a shin-length pleated skirt, all in white and brown. I had arrived fascinated by the enduring image of the Novogrudek Jews clawing at the land that had been their home for generations, escaping underground like mice. I wanted to immerse myself in Sonya’s story and to find out what kept her going. She called to me from the kitchen.

“Mamale,” she said, “what can I give you?”

From the couch I scanned framed photographs on the walls and on the top of the shiny piano. Some were sepia-toned portraits of her parents and grandparents, photos that friends had found among their belongings and mailed to her from Europe after the war. Sonya returned to the couch carrying a can of ginger ale, peeled grapefruit sections in a Styrofoam bowl, and a muffin wrapped in a napkin, all of which she saved from that morning’s breakfast, knowing I was coming.

In 1931, Sonya Gorodinsky was 9 years old, the eldest of four children, with a sister yet to be born. The family lived on Pilsudski Street, in a home next to Sonya’s maternal grandparents, who employed two young Polish women who did housework and looked after the children. “I had a good youth,” Sonya told me. “I was one of the privileged ones.”

Sonya’s parents, Abraham and Tamara, owned an appliance store. Abraham called his daughter Sonyaleh. Many of his customers, non-Jewish state officials, befriended him and called him Abramaleh, or Meme. When there was tension between the Jews and Poles of the town, they would often turn to Meme to mediate.

During the week, the Gorodinsky children ate dinner with their grandparents and were in bed by the time their parents came home from work. But on Fridays, before the Sabbath, her parents came home early. Tamara blessed the candles, and Abraham blessed the wine and challah before the meal. Sonya watched as her father gathered tzedakah to bring to the rabbi, the Jewish orphanage and hospital, and the Zionist youth movement.

The children attended Jewish schools where they studied Hebrew, Torah, and Jewish history, as well as math, science, and literature. She went on to study to be a doctor and was accepted to medical school in Bialistok, to begin in the fall of 1939.

By September of that year Novogrudek was in danger of German invasion. The Polish authorities fled, knowing they would be overpowered. The Jews there believed the Russians would be more sympathetic rulers than the Germans, and so when Soviet soldiers marched into town on September 17, they were greeted with flowers and hugs.

The afternoon of June 24, 1941, Sonya was the only one at home on Pilsudski Street. As she passed the tall brick chimney in the center of the house, she heard a bomb fall. Then another. She stood frozen while the entire house collapsed in a heavy sigh of dust and boards. After the smoke settled, Sonya stood stunned next to the brick chimney.

The Germans had invaded Novogrudek and turned the Jewish neighborhoods to rubble. The shops in the marketplace, mostly Jewish-owned, were burnt and smashed, as were the Jewish libraries and schools. Of all the synagogues, only a few walls remained. There were 300 casualties, mostly Jewish.

It was bitterly cold six months later, on Saturday, December 6, when 6,500 Jews, half the town’s population, were instructed to assemble at the courthouse yard. The Gorodinskys trudged toward the town center clutching pillows, boxes of photographs, and sacks of clothing. Soldiers locked the gates of the courthouse yard behind them.

For two days, the Jews neither slept nor ate. On December 8, Sonya’s grandparents and little brother were sent to their deaths, while Sonya, her parents, and her remaining siblings were locked into the courthouse compound along with Novogrudek’s remaining 1,500 Jews. It was a makeshift ghetto surrounded by a barbed wire and armed guards. The people inside were craftsmen saved for their skills. Each morning the ghetto gates would open and tailors, shoemakers, metalworkers, carpenters, saddlers, and mechanics, along with their families, were ushered under gunpoint to their workshops to sew fur linings into boots, manufacture guns, or mend German army uniforms.

On May 7, 1943, there was another roundup in the courthouse square. SS guards swarmed around the exhausted crowd. Among the guards was Zbisheck, Sonya’s former neighbor, who looked her in the eye.

Zbisheck’s family had lived across from the Gorodinkys on Pilsudski Street. Zbisheck and Sonya were playmates for years. Perhaps when Zbisheck saw Sonya in the crowd he was reminded of her bicycle, her summer dresses, the scallions in her garden. Zbisheck motioned for Sonya to follow him. They entered a room in the courthouse where the skilled workers waited, including her father. Sonya grabbed Zbisheck’s arm and whispered, “You saved my life and I thank you. But please, can you help my sister and my mother too?” Zbisheck answered under his breath that he had already risked his life to save her.

That day the ghetto population was reduced by half. Sonya heard later that her mother linked arms with relatives and her 11-year-old daughter and said “Come, let’s go together to the grave.” Now only an essential 250 workers, along with some children, remained. They began to plot their escape that night.

The original breakout plan had been to storm the ghetto gates on a Sunday night, when the guards notoriously drank and grew lazy. In preparation, some people had bribed hand grenades from guards, others smuggled in guns from peasants outside the ghetto, still others stole iron rods and knives from their workshops. The Jews would throw everything they had and run. The casualty rate would be high, but it would be better than certain death at the hands of their oppressors.

Everyone was ready in their places on the appointed evening. A man near the front gate was poised to throw the first grenade. Sonya, waiting in the bunk, fingered a small gold ring in the pocket of her tattered skirt. A few weeks before her death, her mother had pulled her daughter aside and tugged at her finger. Pressing something small and warm into Sonya’s palm, she said, “Listen my daughter. Have this ring. Maybe you will need it. Maybe you will survive.”

Before the first grenade was thrown, a reinforcement of guards arrived at the main gate, braced for action. The action was called off. Each subsequent night, a reinforcement of guards arrived at dusk, and the Jews eventually abandoned their escape plan. The wife of an injured doctor had leaked word of the plan, not wanting her husband to be left behind and killed. But the younger Jews didn’t want to wait for death. “We saw that everything was finished,” Sonya told me. “What was left was only one person from each family. The young people started to scream, ‘We don’t want to die like our parents died. We’ll run away.’ ” But the older people didn’t want them to run, because the Germans would kill whoever remained in retribution.

Berl Yoselevitch, a carpenter, thought of a tunnel as a compromise. The weak and injured wouldn’t have to run fast or fight. They would hide themselves when everyone else left. The Jews would dig a passage from under a bed located along the northern barracks wall, closest to the outer walls of the ghetto and the woods. The tunnel would drop four and a half feet, then run north under the ghetto to a field next to the forest. They would escape on a moonless July night, when the wheat and grass were uncut and high enough to provide cover as they ran. Once out, they hoped to join the Bielski partisans and seek revenge.

“We wanted to show the world that Jews are not sheep that go to the slaughter,” Sonya remembered. “We decided whoever will make it will make it and whoever would not would not. It was better to die this way than the other way. And maybe someone will survive to tell the world what happened.”

Digging began right away, and details were kept to a select few in order to prevent information leaks. Not everyone was for it. Some Jews feared the tunnel would be impossible to complete before the Germans found out about it. There was one man whom nobody trusted; to ensure that he wouldn’t talk to the Germans, the Jews killed him.

Throughout the summer of 1943, Sonya clawed at the soil underneath the courthouse to escape a place she had, until recently, loved her whole life. Much of the tunnel was dug by children and small men, who could maneuver within its narrow walls. An electrician named Rakovski diverted a current from the ghetto and strung electric bulbs along the tunnel ceiling. He also figured out how to disconnect the searchlights that surveyed the ghetto grounds, and he did so occasionally, so the Germans would get used to these “shortages” and not suspect anything when one took place on the night of the escape.

The children dug lying down, bellies pressed against the earth. I asked Sonya if she remembered the smell of the earth, how it felt on her cheeks and under her fingernails. “I did not smell or feel a thing,” she replied. “We were anxious to get out as fast as we can because we had death waiting for us. I don’t even know whether I was breathing or not. I didn’t care at all, Mamika. We were full of worries that we forgot about anything else. We just wanted to get out. We wanted our lives.”

In order not to soil their only clothing and arouse suspicion, the children dug naked or wore robes of burlap sacks or old cloth sewn especially for the task. Sonya dug with her brother, Shaul, sometimes with a cousin, and with her new friend, Aaron Oshman, who at 30 was 10 years older than she and had been moved with his brother to the Novogrudek ghetto about a year earlier, when his ghetto in Ivinitz, a small town in White Russia, was liquidated. Theirs had been a wealthy family before the war; their father owned a hardware business. When Aaron arrived in Novogrudek, he sat in an empty workshop crying for his parents. In a Shoah Testimony video interview, given before his death in 2004, Aaron recalled the first time he saw Sonya. “In walked a beautiful woman. She was 19 years old. She said, ‘Don’t cry, young man, you still have your life.’” Aaron discussed philosophy and Zionism with Sonya. He was articulate and kind. Four feet underground, muddy with damp soil, Sonya and Aaron fell in love.

To remove dirt displaced by the tunnel, the diggers filled sacks of it that they then passed back until it reached the hole under the bed in the ghetto. Half a million pounds of earth were packed into false double walls built in the courthouse barracks. Soil was hidden in corners where the attic ceiling slanted to meet the floor, and buried under floorboards that were ripped up and then replaced. Ghetto residents smuggled sacks of soil to toilets—holes in the ground—outhouses at the end of the camp. One of the group’s carpenters laid a wooden track along the tunnel floor so they could use a cart to haul the dirt out.

By July 1943, the tunnel was about 240 feet long and near completion. But July was rainy that year, and the soppy earth leaked, muddying the tunnel. The group feared the tunnel would collapse. Determined not to let his plan fail, Berl Yoselevitch stole wood slats from his workshop to reinforce the walls and ceiling. He also organized the digging of small drains and channels in the floor to divert water.

In the meantime, the wheat fields were harvested, leaving a vast area of open ground between the camp and the forest. Rumors floated that the ghetto was to be liquidated further, leaving just 20 people alive. Many of the Jews wanted to leave immediately, but more decided to delay departure and dig 100 feet farther, which would put the tunnel’s exit closer to the forest. They’d leave the digging of the actual exit until the night of the escape. The first people to go through would be the young, carrying shovels to dig the final distance and guns and hand grenades should they face guards when they surfaced. The older people would wait take up the rear so that if they moved too slowly or fainted they wouldn’t hold everyone else back.

In August, the tunnel was complete. It was 750 feet, and the Jews watched the late summer sky for signs of a storm that would provide cover during an escape. But the nights were clear, and the moonless days passed. While they waited, 11 skilled craftsmen, including Sonya’s father, were transferred to Koldichevo, a camp that ran a weapons factory. Of Sonya’s family of seven, only she and her brother Shaul remained in Novogrudek.

Over the next several weeks the Jews rehearsed their escape to see how long it would take. Two to three hours seemed enough time for 240 people to pass through the tunnel. They submitted names of those they wanted to leave with, and were instructed when to appear at the mouth of the tunnel.

Sunday, September 26, 1943, was a moonless stormy night. Around 8 p.m., Rakovski, the electrician, cut power to the ghetto searchlights and turned on the tunnel lights. Nails in the barracks’ tin roof were loosened, amplifying the sounds of the falling rain in order to mask sounds of escape. The Jews quietly assembled, waiting in the darkness for their turn to lower themselves into the lighted earth. Sonya stood with Aaron and her brothers. Some families tied themselves to one another; others held hands.

One couple had secretly given birth in the ghetto. Before the escape, the mother strangled her child to death—the group could not take the chance that the baby would cry during its escape and alert guards above ground.

Like the Jews fleeing Egypt, the Jews of Novogrudek crawled as quickly as they could through the dirt. Sonya was in the middle. At her hands were people’s feet, at her feet, others’ hands. She felt like a mouse in a line of them, crawling silently. She hypnotized herself with a chant: Sonya, you got to make it, you got to make it. She then changed it to, God, please let me go through. Don’t bury me. Don’t bury me. Don’t bury me. Every movement she made, she was sure that the world would bury her alive.

At the end of the tunnel, it was pouring rain, and the escapees couldn’t see in the new darkness above ground. Seventy of them accidentally ran toward the ghetto and were shot by guards who thought partisans were ambushing them. Among them were two of Sonya’s cousins and Berl Yoselevitch, the tunnel’s mastermind.

When Sonya emerged, she immediately lost Aaron and her brother in the confusion. She heard shots and shouting from the right, and to her left she could just make out a road. “I got into a little ditch and out from the ditch I went through a cornfield where the leaves and the stalks were quite high. During the night I crawled around. During the day I sat in the bushes and waited.” She had no shoes. Her dress was torn. She ate nothing.

Early the morning after the escape, Germans stormed into the barracks to see why no Jews had lined up for the daily roll. By one account, they found an ironically formal letter explaining that Jews were needed elsewhere. In another version, the letter informed the Germans that they were liberating themselves and that they would take revenge. Afraid to enter the tunnel in case bombs or traps had been set up inside, the Germans forced a member of the Judenrat to crawl through. When he arrived safely on the other end, he was hanged. Peasants crowded into the courthouse to gaze at the gaping hole the Jews had left behind.

For two weeks Sonya ran through the forests during the night and tried to rest and hide during the day. She grew so hungry that when she finally saw a little house with a light on at the bottom of a hill, she couldn’t resist trying for help, despite the frightening prospect that her fate depended on the kindness of the person inside. Through the window she saw an old man at a table, patching clothes. He looked like pictures she’d seen of St. Nicholas, with white hair and beard. Sonya knocked on the window and when he came to the door he simply said, “I know who you are. I want to help you.”

The Novogrudek escape had been on the radio, and the Nazis announced that anyone who turned in a Jew would receive several pounds of sugar. But the man offered Sonya his cellar, about 10 feet from the house, where he stored potatoes. Sonya buried herself there, thinking about a future without her family and friends. During the day, she didn’t move. Late each night the old man would bring her bread, a little milk, a cooked potato, whatever he had. After six weeks, he came with only a small bit of bread. He had nothing left for either of them to eat. Sonya looked at the ring her mother had given her and said, “Please take this. Sell it for food.” The man refused. The whole town knew he was poor. If he came to them with a gold ring, they would know he was hiding a Jew.

Nearby, at the edge of the forest, there was a house where people often came and went by horse in the middle of the night. He had heard that these were the Bielskis, and he offered to cover Sonya with straw in the back of his wagon and take her to that house. Sonya agreed. There she found her brother Shaul, some surviving relatives, and friends from neighboring ghettos. She also found Aaron, whom she asked to marry her.

In the Bielski group, everyone had a job to perform. While Sonya’s relatives made fur hats and boots, Sonya stood look-out on a hill. One morning about two weeks after she arrived, Sonya saw a group of men walking toward her. From their skeletal frames, she could tell that they were escapees hoping for refuge. They told her they had recently fled Koldichevo, the camp where her father had been held. Sonya asked about him. “He had escaped with us,” they told her. “He’s probably on his way to see you now.”

Sonya stood guard for two days and nights, forgoing sleep, watching for a familiar figure. Finally, on the third day, a man approached. He was smaller than her father, but, she thought, perhaps he’d shrunk under hardship. She sobbed waiting for him to reach her, to see the crinkle in his eyes, to hear him call her Sonyaleh.

When the man was near enough, Sonya saw that it was not her father.

“Why are you crying, child?”

“I am waiting for my father, Abraham Gorodinsky, from Koldichevo.”

“Stop crying, my child,” he said. “Your father is never coming.”

The man had been a doctor at Koldichevo, while her father had worked fixing watches and appliances. Each night, the Germans appointed a different inmate to guard their jewels. When it came for Abraham’s turn, he knew he was too tired to stay awake and hired a friend to take his turn rather than risk falling asleep on the job and being killed for it. But his friend was exhausted too and fell asleep in the barracks before even taking up the post. When a guard came to check that a watchman was there, he discovered an empty chair. The next day, the Germans made all the inmates gather around as they beat Abraham so badly that his body lost its shape. “However,” said the doctor, “your father yelled to the soldiers when the beating began, saying, ‘You will kill me today, but I have a son and a daughter and they will survive and tell what happened here.’ ”

When they heard that the war had ended, the remaining Jews of Novogrudek marched back to their hometown. They found nothing but painful memories. With other refugees, Aaron and Sonya walked across Europe to a displaced persons camp in Italy. They hoped it would be a stopping point on the way to Israel, but Sonya got sick and needed penicillin, which was available then only in the United States. The couple married and departed for Brooklyn shortly after the birth of their first son.

Aaron died six years ago, after 56 years of marriage. Sonya has two sons, both lawyers, and four grandchildren. She travels to schools, synagogues, community centers to share her story. “My name is Sonya Oshman,” she says, “and I wish to speak of my father. From 30,000 Jews [in the region], perhaps only 150 survived, and from the Gorodinsky family, I am now the only living member. My brother who escaped with me died five years ago. He was a major in the Israeli army. But I want to keep my father’s promise, so I am standing here tonight and filling out the last wish of my dad. I am telling you a little fragment of my story. In this way, I hope my father’s life will be one of the lives remembered.”

Meanwhile Novogrudek’s Jewish graveyard is overgrown, its headstones mostly missing; peasants have scavenged the granite slabs to line their basements and the walls of cisterns. Once home to 6,500 Jews, Novogrudek now has one.

Gila Lyons’s writing has appeared in Salon, The Millions, The Morning News, Ploughshares, The Forward, and other publications.