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Holocaust survivor shares her harrowing story of survival at BAMC

By Rachel Cooper | Brooke Army Medical Center Public Affairs | May 15, 2018

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas —

Brooke Army Medical Center observed Days of Remembrance April 24 in the auditorium with this year’s theme of “Legacy of perseverance, learning from the Holocaust,” with Holocaust survivor Hanna Davidson Pankowsky shared her story of escaping Poland at 10 years old with her mother.  

“I don’t have words to give thanks to all of you, women and men in uniform who fought and are still fighting to give us a safe home,” Pankowsky said. “My gratitude has no limits because if not for the American Army, I wouldn’t be here. You liberated us and gave me the chance to live. Thank you.”

Pankowsky’s father and brother left to fight in the World War II, leaving her mother and herself in Ludz.

When the Nazi soldiers entered Ludz, the Jews were forced to throw flowers at them. Those who didn’t want to throw the flowers were shot, she said.

At first, they were allowed to go to school, she explained. Then, one day she was sitting in the classroom and smelled smoke. The class looked out of the window and saw the synagogue burning across the street. The Jews were forced to throw gasoline on the synagogue to make it burn faster.

“Those who didn’t want to throw the gasoline were shot,” she said.

They heard “the scream of hell,” from people stuck in the building. The teacher tried to calm the class down but all Pankowsky could think was, “we’d be next.”

Jews were forbidden to walk on the main street. She had to walk around the city to get to her house, even though it was across the street from where she was going to school.

“I told my little friend, you know what? I’m going to cross the street,” Pankowsky said. “I did this all my life. I didn’t understand why I could not.”

There were two Nazi soldiers who saw them with their stars on their clothes, identifying them as Jews and shouted, “Jude, Jews crossing the street!” They fired their machine guns and her friend was shot. They were forbidden to move her body from the street.

When her mother heard the ghetto was forming, she decided to escape, despite the fact that she had a 1 percent chance of survival, Pankowsky said.

They escaped by disguising themselves as Christians. A truck driver drove them out of the city and they were driven to the border where Poland was divided.

“During the war, the children, they grow up very fast,” she said.

They were dropped off in the forest and in deep snow with the river as the dividing point between East and West Poland. As they were walking they saw searchlights and heard search dogs barking. Her mother covered them in snow and they laid still.  

After the searchlights disappeared and the dogs were heard in the distance they crossed the river to the Russian side of Poland and went to a railroad station.

“Once we mixed with the general population it was easy to escape,” Pankowsky said.

Her mother had an acquaintance that lived in the Russian occupied side of Poland. The woman opened the door and there stood her father and brother.

Eventually her family was placed in a displacement camp and received food left over from the U.S. Army food supplies.

“What we had – I have to mention -- was Spam,” she said. “The first day they served us, it was delicious. Well, after three times a day, day after day, week after week, today I don’t want anymore.”

Later on they obtained a visa to Mexico City and then Pankowsky came to America after getting married.

“In surviving, we defeated Hitler, he could not destroy us all. We will put the pieces of our life together to educate the children and we continue our heritage and our identity,” Pankowsky said. “Never forget this holocaust exists because so many deny this – still.  You cannot deny me, because I saw it.”

The Days of Remembrance ended with a candle lighting service. Ten candles were lit and Pankowsky lit the 11th candle in remembrance of the lives lost during the Holocaust.