Holocaust Survival Tale: Hana

  • By Ana Aceves
  • Posted 03.30.17
  • NOVA

In 1941 in Lithuania, the Nazis killed tens of thousands of Jews in the Ponar forest. Two years later, the Nazis brought 80 Jews to the killing site to burn the bodies to cover up their atrocities. These Jewish prisoners planned a risky escape by digging an underground tunnel with nothing more than spoons, screwdrivers, and their bare hands. Motke Zeidel was one of 12 who made it out alive. Here’s his story, as told by his daughter Hana Amir.

Running Time: 07:50


Hana Amir: They took them up and they walked them to one of the holes. They told them to take the sand off, I think with some shovels, I don't know what they had to do it with. And there they saw bodies. A lot of bodies. And he said, "We were all shocked. And they told us that we need to take the bodies out. And the wood that we cut, we had to put the wood and on it, the bodies."

The Nazis and the Lithuanians were talking about the "shmatas." They didn't—it wasn't bodies of human beings. It was "shmatas," which means rags. You wash the floor with. And it meant nothing, like the Jews are nothing.

He said, "We were stinking from the smell of the bodies. And we ate with the hands that we worked on the bodies. And like, we were like animals."

And my father, afterwards, kept on washing hands, all the time.

Whenever you saw my father, wherever he went, whatever he did, first of all he had to wash our hands. It was an obsession. He was cleaning all the time.

He was the youngest one, my father. There were, through the time they came to 80 people that worked. There were four women that were in the kitchen. So the team of workers were 84 people. In those holes. And he said you didn't have time. You were, if you said that you feel, you don't feel good or something they took you out and they shot you. One was telling them he doesn't feel good and he was gone. And from one side you knew you had to go on. And from the other side, like my dad said we didn't know about Auschwitz. We didn't know about Majdanek.

And all we thought is that someone will survive and tell the world what's going on, what happened here.

My father said we had to find a solution because we knew none of us will survive. They kill us. We'll be the next ones in the hole. So we had to run away.

One of them—Doghim—he was an electricity technician. And he said we must build a tunnel. That's the only way.

They were about 20, I think between 20 to 25 people that could dig. And when they decide on the day to run away, it was according to as much as you worked in the tunnel. That's the way the numbered were put. My father was number five.

He said after the whole day of burning the bodies, he said we went into this tunnel. There was no air at the beginning. We were digging with the hands, with spoons we found on the bodies, with screwdriver on the bodies. Whatever we found there.

They dug for three, between three and three and half months. And they went, they waited for a night where there is no moon. Full dark night. And it was the 15, I think the 15 in April, when it was a decision to do it. And they told everyone.

And when they went out in the other side, it was already the beginning of spring so the leaves were dry. And the guards heard the steps on the leaves.

And that's when they start shooting. So they survived twelve.

They wanted revenge. At least that's what my father said. He said, "We felt that we're nothing. And the moment that we managed and we tricked them and we, we dig the tunnel and we escaped of it, we wanted to go to the partisans. We wanted to fight. We wanted to do something."

When he got to the partisans, he said, "The first thing they did, they pushed us on the side and they said take off the clothes. They boiled water to wash us. Because we were stinking so much. They burned our clothes and they gave us new clothes."

My father, he met my mother and he said, "No way. I'm not staying here, on this land. No way." And he started the runaway through, it took him about eight month. And he stood on Israel earth in 10 of October, '45.

I believe no one, no human being should do anything like this to another one. There can be disagreement. We are living in a country with a lot of disagreements. But the other side is human beings. And that is something we must never forget.



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


Archival Photographs
Yad Vashem


(main image: Hana Amir portrait)
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2017

Related Links