Holocaust Survival Tale: Haim

  • By Ari Daniel
  • Posted 03.30.17
  • NOVA

During World War II, Zalman Matzkin was one of 80 Jewish prisoners forced to burn the bodies of thousands of murdered Jews in the forest of Ponar in Lithuania. On a dark night at the end of Passover in 1944, he and 11 others escaped through a tunnel they had dug. After everything that had happened to him, he found the energy to build a new life and a new family in Israel. He told his story of hard-earned freedom to his son, Haim Matzkin, who relays it here.

Running Time: 06:34


Haim Matzkin: My late father's name was Zalman, Zalman Matzkin.

He said you need to know. You need to know. So I was, I guess already high school or perhaps even after high school. One of the days he said you need to know the entire story. I had a family, I had a wife, I had children. So that's when he told me.

My father stayed quite long in the little, in the little village. And then they were taken to the ghetto.

And towards the end of the ghetto, they, together with other Jewish people were taken to Ponar.

During the first months, they were asked to cut down trees. It was obviously, it was a veritable big forest around. And they were not told what the trees were to be used for. But they for several months cut down actually the trees from the forest that prepared logs. And towards the end of 1943, somewhere in December, the beginning of '44, they were told what the purpose of those logs were.

The German officer at the time told him that around 120,000 Jews were killed by the Lithuanians. At the beginning, they used to say they were killed by the Lithuanians. And they were buried in those pits in the oil cisterns. And that their job would be to dig them out and burn them. Before… so nothing would be left. At that time they realized that… he used to, always used to tell me that the first they were told what they were going to do, they realized that when they will be done they will be killed. Because they would be the only living people to tell what was there. So he used to tell me that… they all realized, not just himself, they all, the entire group there realized that they would live as long as there would be corpses to dig out and burn. But towards the end, obviously, they would also be killed. And that's why they started thinking of how to escape.

They used to burn, he said about 200 corpses on each layer of wood, of logs. And they used to put like ten layers, so it was about 2000 corpses plus or minus a day. So it took them quite a long time to dig those people out and burn them. His… at the beginning their job was to dig them out. And later on, he was assigned to burn them, put some gasoline and, and burn the corpses.

I think he found his two children. I'm not sure but I know for sure that he found his wife. And he found other family members. And that others in the group were also found other members of their own family.

He told me that they were obviously contemplating many ways how to escape but at the end they knew that the only way they could try and escape was to dig a tunnel. And he always described that at the end of the day, they were brought down with a ladder to the bottom of the pit. The ladder was taken out, was taken away so there was no way they could climb it up. Cause it was quite a deep cistern, quite a deep pit. So they realized that they would have to dig. At the beginning he told me not everybody was happy with the idea. They didn't think that it would succeed. But there was a smaller number of people that decided that was the only way. And he said the more they dug, the more people joined.

He told me that they had like a spoon, or a plate. And with the spoon and the plate they used to dig uh, every day. And when they were brought up so the ladder, they used to get rid of the sand or the rubble.

He said that they were having the feeling that it was towards the end. They were finishing the job, there were no more corpses to be dug out. They understood that as I said, once they would finish the job they would be killed. And they knew they had to do it. He said they were looking for the darkest night they could. And the darkest night was on the seventh day of Pesach, which was almost towards the end of the Jewish months. So it was dark enough. And they decided that that would be the day. They decided ahead of time. And at that particular day, they prayed and they were not… none of them was religious but some of them, one of them was more religious so they prayed together with him. And they were waiting for sundown. And during the night, they escaped.

He said the Germans, it took seconds before they started shooting and there was light like mid-day. He used to describe it. There was so much light they didn't know where to run. He was shot in his leg. The partisans found them. They were hiding in the bushes or wherever. And the partisans were actually sent to look for them.

I found out about Ponar when I was ten, twelve years old, when I realized those people who gathered in our place were, who, who are these friends?

They used to come once a year at the last day of Passover to celebrate their freedoms. So they used to come as a families and kids. That's how I knew the rest of them.

He had those, the energy to start anew, after everything that happened to him. He came over here towards the end of 1949 and in April, '50 he married my mother and they started anew. And decided he wants, he wanted a new family and he wanted a kid, etc. So he was quite special.

For him it was very important that he had a son… the name was to be continued.

I was the only son. So out of my father's six brothers and sisters that were there before the Holocaust, I am the only one alive.



Director of Photography
Daniel Lyons, Ezra Wolfinger, Tom Phillips
Pete Nenortas, Oleg Kaizerman, Chris Preston
Digital Editor
Ari Daniel
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2017


Archival Photographs
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of William Begell


(main image: Haim Matzkin portrait)
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2017

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