Holocaust survivor Hannah tells Queen Mary students of day her mum was shot by Nazis
- Credit: Archant
Holocaust survivor Hannah Lewis relived the childhood horror of seeing her mother shot by a Nazi death squad and lying in the snow bleeding to death.
She was retelling her early Jewish life under German occupation in Poland to students at east London’s Queen Mary University at Mile End.
The talk was arranged by a devout Muslim law student after researching the Holocaust in which six million Jews across occupied Europe were exterminated by the Nazis in the Second World War.
Rabia Ahmed’s thoughts were to bring people of different faiths together. She was put in touch with Hannah, now 77, through the Holocaust Education Trust.
Hannah was born in the summer of 1937 in W?odawa, a small market town by the river Bug on the Ukraine border, a happy child whose grandparents owned the town store, a sawmill and a flour mill. But that idyllic world came to an end after September, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland.
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It wasn’t long before the Jews of W?odawa were rounded up and force-marched to a work camp, including Hannah and her family.
Hannah was ill with suspected Typhus when she was six and her mother didn’t want to expose her to the bitter winter cold, so they remained at the camp despite her father, who had earlier escaped to join the Partisans, returning to warn his family that SS Einsatzgruppen death squads were coming.
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“The trucks came early the next morning with the soldiers and the dogs,” Hannah recalled. “There was a whack at the door with a rifle butt. We had heard it all before and knew the sounds.
“My mother calmly gave me a big hug and a kiss, got up and walked to the door and closed it behind her.
“She left me behind and eventually I went out onto the steps to look for her. She was with others being pushed and lined up against the village well.
“I saw her being shot. I saw her fall and the blood on the snow. I watched my mother die.”
Hannah knew she must not give herself away by crying—or she would be dragged to the well herself and murdered alongside her mother.
“At that moment I grew up,” she continued. “One thing that really haunted me as I got older and can’t come to terms with is my mum’s decision not to look at me when she was being shot.
“Her decision saved my life. I often wonder if I could have done the same in her place.”
It was the last winter of the war and W?odawa was eventually liberated by Soviet forces.
A Russian soldier found Hannah starved and hiding in a ditch. Hannah finally reached London in 1949 as a 12-year-old refugee to live with her great uncle, where she settled, married and raised her own family and now has grandchildren.
Devout Muslim law student Rabia Ahmed set out to bring to life the horrors of the Nazi atrocities to her fellow students at Queen Mary’s in an attempt to get people of all faiths together.
The 21-year-old from Forest Gate was put in touch with Hannah by the Holocaust Education Trust, then arranged for her to meet the students at Queen Mary’s last Thursday..
Rabia explained: “We are portrayed as Muslims as denying the Holocaust or that we don’t like Jews because of everything that’s happened in the world.
“But those who died in the Holocaust were real people, with real emotions.
“It was important having a survivor meet us—one day there won’t be a time when people like Hannah are around to tell their story.
“I did the Auschwitz project and visited Poland and saw the concentration camps—that really affected me.”
Hannah Lewis is often asked, like the Queen Mary students last Thursday, if she can forgive what happened in the Holocaust. Hannah is resolute.
“It’s not for me to forgive,” she tells you. “I am not empowered to speak for the six million and many others who died. I can only speak for myself.”
She is glad to survive—but even today, 70 years on, still feels cheated in life.
“My one regret is that the man who cause it all wasn’t captured,” she adds. “He took the cowards’ way out.
“I would have loved to have seen Hitler stand trial. I resent the fact he killed himself and feel cheated by it.
“I have the responsibility of a survivor, however, to tell it as truthfully as it was.”
Hannah returned to W?odawa for the first time in 1985 on an emotional visit looking for the village well where her mother was shot—but it had vanished, covered up over the years for safety.