One of Holocaust survivor Hannah Pankowsky’s earliest memories involves Nazis enlisting the Jewish residents of Lodz, Poland to help make their propaganda films. One film showed Jews dumping gasoline on a synagogue; what it didn’t show was the German soldiers pointing machine guns at the Jews, threatening to kill them if they didn’t comply with their orders.
Families with children, teenagers, students from local universities, and adults from all walks of life gathered in the main auditorium of the San Antonio Central Library on Jan. 26 for the Remember and Learn lecture on the Holocaust. The crowd was so large that library staff had to add chairs to accommodate the overflow.
Pankowsky shared her account of the trials she and her family endured when the German Army invaded her native Poland and their experiences at the hands of the Soviets after they escaped the Germans by fleeing to Russia. At the end of the war, the family left Europe by ship and was refused entry to Cuba, Mexico, and several South American countries because their travel documents had expired during their journey. Finally, with the help of a Jewish community in Mexico, the family was granted temporary visitor visas in Mexico and eventually resettled in the United States.
Pankowsky’s story of survival began in Lodz when she was 9 years old. At that time, her city had a population of 700,000 and Jews made up 33%. Pankowsky lived with her mother, father, and brother in a house when the German army occupied the city.
She recalled a German edict which prohibited Jews from crossing main streets in the city. Her school was directly across from her house. One day she ran across the street, thus violating the order. Soldiers came for her, but she had already taken refuge inside the school. The next day one of her friends crossed the street and was shot dead by soldiers who then forbade her family to remove her body from the street.
Most of the questions following Pankowsky’s lecture came from young attendees. Some inquired about her feelings during her ordeal and how she survived the insurmountable difficulties, oppression, and exclusion at the hands of both the Nazis and the Soviets. Others asked about parallels between her experience and the current state of immigrants in the U.S. today. While she refrained from commenting on today’s politics of immigration, Pankowsky spoke directly about hope and faith sustaining her throughout her years of persecution.
The audience members’ questions signaled awareness of the similarities between politics then and now, and how they produced fear – then and now. This kind of consciousness is exactly the purpose of having and continuing to have Learn and Remember programs.
At the end of World War II, the city of Lodz, including nearby villages, lost more than 50% of its pre-war inhabitants, including approximately 300,000 Polish Jews and 120,000 Poles.
Most of my maternal family immigrated from Lodz, the same town Pankowsky lived in. Some came to the U.S., some went to the Middle East, and some were never heard from again after the war ended.