World

Holocaust survivor describes horror of watching Nazi death squad kill her mother

Hannah Lewis was just seven years old when she watched a Nazi death squad execute her mother.

Her family was rounded up by Adolf Hitler’s forces and forced to march to a labour camp in the Polish village of Adampol in 1943.

Hannah’s father Adam escaped the camp to join the partisans – a Jewish resistance movement during the Second World War – and returned to warn of an imminent Nazi raid, the night before his wife’s death.

Hannah’s mother Haya refused to flee, fearing her daughter – who had fallen ill with a high temperature and suspected typhoid – would not survive.

“For as long as I live, I will always wonder how she got through that night,” Hannah tells Sky’s Sophy Ridge.

“How she made the decision she made? Was it right?”

The next morning, Hannah heard “yelling” and “screaming” following the arrival of the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazis’ mobile killing unit responsible for the mass shooting of Jews.

“Suddenly there was a whack on the door and my mother – with great dignity – got on her knees, took me in her arms, and gave me a hug and a kiss,” Hannah says.

“She didn’t run, she didn’t make a sound. She walked to the door, opened the door and closed it firmly behind her.

“I waited for her to come back… but she didn’t come back.”

‘Blood on the snow’

Hannah, an only child, went to look for her mother and watched as Haya and others were “shoved” in front of a well in the village.

She remembers her mother appeared calm but wouldn’t give eye contact to her.

“I decided that I would go down and take her hand, the way I always did,” says Hannah, fighting back tears.

“As I was about to go in bare feet, somebody shouted an order and they started to shoot.

“I saw her fall… and I saw the blood on the snow.”

As well as her mother, Hannah’s grandfather, her uncle and her younger cousin Shlomo were also murdered at Adampol.

Now aged 85 and living in north London, Hannah is sharing her experience to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, the anniversary of the liberation of Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Six million Jewish men, women and children were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust. In her family, only Hannah and her father survived.

‘I never forgave myself for losing my cousin’

Hannah described her cousin Shlomo – who was deaf and unable to speak – as “the brother I never had” and “the one person that I absolutely adored”.

She recalls being outside at the camp with the little boy, who was aged about three, when she heard the sound of Nazi vehicles pulling up.

“He couldn’t hear and he couldn’t speak so I took his hand,” Hannah says. “I pulled it so he knew he had to come and we ran in to the nearest barn.”

Hannah says she dived into a mound of straw where she and Shlomo would often hide but she realised he wasn’t there.

She was about to leave her hiding place to find him when she saw her cousin standing by the barn door.

“The door swung open and (the Nazis) saw him and they picked him up literally by the scruff of his neck,” she says.

“My last sight of my lovely cousin was his back… and his legs kicking. I never saw him again.

“When I lost Shlomo I never forgave myself.”

Going into hiding

Hannah’s family had been living in the small market town of Włodawa in Poland when the Nazis invaded.

“Suddenly there was a curfew,” she says. “And suddenly my grandfather couldn’t trade. And suddenly you had to wear a mark.

“I remember my father, before it got really bad, putting me in a sled and taking me to a photographer.

“I’m standing there trying to smile and I’ve got tears in my eyes because I know that something horrible is happening and it’s not right.

“I was probably six.”

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The family initially went into hiding, staying in a barn which required a “special knock” to gain entry.

“There were two or three other families there and when they saw me, they were not best pleased,” Hannah says.

“They did not want to hide with children.”

After one night there, Hannah says “suddenly the barn door flew open” and “everybody froze”.

She recalls seeing “the tip of very shiny boots” and the peaked hats of Nazi soldiers as they “poked around”.

“We sat there like statues,” Hannah says.

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‘Luck ran out’

While the family narrowly avoided being found that time, Hannah says eventually their “luck run out” and they were given an hour to pack up their belongings.

Aged just six, Hannah says she walked for nearly five hours to the labour camp at Adampol.

“If you tripped, or if you fell, no one helped hold you up,” she says.

“I remember them just shooting somebody.”

After arriving at the camp, there was no electricity or running water and the security measures included barbed wire fencing and a watchtower.

Then just a little girl, Hannah tried to cope with the trauma of witnessing her mother’s death, and initially refused to believe she had been killed.

Instead, she convinced herself that Haya was injured and pretending to be dead to save herself.

It was only after being liberated by a Soviet soldier, and reunited with her father – who had also witnessed his wife’s murder – that the reality dawned on Hannah.

“He got hold of me, he laughed, he cried, he cuddled me,” she says of her father.

“I said: ‘Where’s mama?’ He said: ‘Mama’s not coming back. Mama died. You saw it.’

“I remember him shaking me because apparently for a couple of hours I didn’t utter one sound.”

‘Children ask: Do you hate the Germans?’

After the war, Hannah and her father lived in the Polish city of Lodz and she admits she became “jealous” of other children who had both parents.

She moved to Britain in 1949 to live with her great aunt and uncle, while her father left Poland for Israel in 1953.

She married in 1961 and has four children and eight grandchildren, and now shares her experience of the Holocaust in schools and universities.

“Every now and again the kids say: ‘Do you tell your story because you hate the Germans?’,” she says.

“I say no, I tell my story because I care for you.

“Beware of people who promise you the world and actually don’t.”

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