Seventy-five years ago, a little Jewish girl watched from the doorstep of a Polish farmhouse as her mother was marched into a snowy field, forced in front of an open well and executed in cold blood.
Now living in North London, Hannah Lewis, 80, whose daughter Jane Lewis designs clothes for the Duchess of Cambridge, has spoken out about her experiences to mark Holocaust Memorial Day – and shown her late mother’s treasured needlework for the first time to MailOnline.
‘My mother was a wonderful person. We had such a strong bond that wherever we were, we somehow made eye contact,’ she said.
‘When the knock at the door came, she got up and she gave me a big kiss. Very unhurried, she walked to the door, opened it and closed it behind her.’
Hannah Lewis, 80, who saw her mother being shot by a Nazi killing squad when she was six
Hannah’s mother, Chaya Szczuryk, who was shot by the Nazis before her 30th birthday
Hannah’s mother, Chaya Szczuryk, left, Hannah as a baby, centre, and her father, Adam, right
Hannah’s father, Adam Szczuryk, left, and her mother, Chaya Szczuryk, right, before the War
Hannah, who was then just six years old, waited for her mother to come back. When she didn’t, and heard shouts and commands from outside, she decided to go and look for her.
The little girl stood on the icy doorstep of the farmhouse and saw a Nazi killing-squad had lined up some Jews on the edge of a well. Her mother was among them.
‘[My mother] was in the front row,’ she recalled. ‘There were probably two or three rows and she was to my left. I couldn’t understand what was happening. I decided I would go to her like I would always go to her, and get hold of her hand.
‘As I was deciding how I was going to get down the steps, they were lined up. Someone barked an order and they started to shoot. I saw her fall. I saw the blood on the snow.’
Looking back as an adult, Hannah believes that her mother gave herself up without looking back so that the Nazi soldiers would not notice the small girl watching as the scene unfolded.
‘I know exactly what she did,’ Hannah said. ‘I don’t know how long I stood there after it happened, but I remember putting myself back on our makeshift bed. I think I grew up at that particular time.’
Very unhurried, she walked to the door, opened it and closed it behind her
Hannah came to live in London as a refugee in 1949, when she was 12 years old, and found it very difficult at first because she could not speak the language.
Now, however, she has been happily married to her husband, David, an art dealer, since 1961. She has four children, one of whom, Jane, has become one of Britain’s top fashion designers who started the exclusive label Goat. She also has eight grandchildren.
Hannah herself was awarded an MBE in the 2018 New Year’s Honours list for her work with the Holocaust Educational Trust.
But the traumatic events of 1943 continue to haunt her. At the time, Hannah and her mother, Chaya Szczuryk, had been at the labour camp at Adampol in eastern Poland for under a year after being arrested.
They had only escaped being sent to the nearby Sobibor extermination camp because a kind local farmer – whom Hannah remembers only as ‘Old Man’ – had intervened, and got them a job working in his farmhouse.
Hannah had been ill with suspected typhoid so she and her mother had been allowed to sleep in the kitchen by the stove instead of in their freezing barracks.
The night before her mother was killed, Hannah recalls, there was a knock at the window. It was her father, Adam, who had escaped and joined the local Polish partisan fighters. He had heard that the Germans were planning to search for Jews and kill them the next day.
The Duchess of Cambridge on an official visit in London. She wears Jane Lewis’ designs
Jane Lewis, founder of the fashion label Goat, whose mother is Hannah Lewis
Hannah Lewis with a piece of embroidery that her mother created before her death in 1943
Hannah Lewis with a dress sewn by her mother that was buried during the War and later found
Hannah Lewis’ mother poses on a boat, left, and Hannah Lewis as a child, right
A rare picture of the camp at Adampol in Poland where Hannah and her mother were taken
‘I saw my mother open the window and there was my father,’ she said. ‘He was thin and wearing a black hat but it was definitely him. He begged us to come away with him but my mother said I was so ill that I’d never survive life in the forest, and that she would never leave without me.
‘After a while he went away and she closed the window and went back to sleep.
‘After the war, I discovered that the next day, he too had seen my mother being murdered from his hiding-place in the woods,’ she said, ‘but there was nothing he could do.’
The family had already been through a number of traumatic experiences together. Before the war, Hannah had been part of a thriving Jewish community in the small market town of Wlodowa in rural eastern Poland, now on the border with Ukraine.
Her grandfather owned a popular local grocery shop as well as a nearby mill, and she would spend much of her time playing with her younger cousin Shlomo, who was deaf and mute.
‘Shlomo was so lovely, she said. ‘He was my best friend, the brother I never had.’
At first, many Jewish refugees from the cities, where the Germans were rounding them up, arrived in the far-flung town. But in 1942, the Nazis arrived and began to hunt for Jews.
‘We would make ourselves useful with farm work and whenever the soldiers came to look for Jews, we would hide,’ Hannah recalled.
‘Once we heard that some army trucks were coming so we hid in a hay loft. The soldiers came in and I could see them through gaps in the floorboards, the peaks of their caps and their boots.
‘I was with my family and some other Jews who had also hidden there. We all kept completely silent and the soldiers left. We didn’t dare to move or speak for hours afterwards.’
In one of these raids, her cousin Shlomo was taken away. ‘I hid in a pile of hay but I couldn’t call out to him because he was deaf,’ she said. ‘The soldiers took him away and he was killed.’
Many Jews were taken to the nearby Sobibor extermination camp, where approximately 200,000 people were murdered between 1942 and 1945. Hannah and her mother, however, were sent to a nearby labour camp instead because of the help of a farmer, a family friend.
Shlomo, left, the deaf cousin and best friend of Hannah Lewis, right. He was killed shortly after
Hannah Lewis’ parents, Chaya and Adam Szczuryk, posing in the countryside before the War
Hannah Lewis’ father, Adam Szczuryk, poses in Poland, where he later became a partisan
Hannah Lewis’ father, Adam Szczuryk, left and her mother, Chaya Szczuryk, right
Hannah Lewis’ mother, Chaya Szczuryk, poses with a fern tree in a garden in Poland
They survived together for almost a year until the day when there was the knock at the door that led to her mother’s death.
When the German forces fled in 1945, Hannah – then eight years old – was left to fend for herself until Soviet soldier found her in a trench, dirty and starving. Eventually she was reunited with her father.
Although she knew deep down that her mother was dead, she had been telling herself that she may have been only injured and could have survived.
‘I asked my father if my mother was coming back and he said, darling, you know she isn’t.
‘I went completely silent at that moment and did not say a word for two hours. My father was shaking me and panicking because he thought I had gone permanently mute because of the shock.’
They went back to find the house they had lived in before the war and dug in the garden to unearth valuables they had buried before they fled.
Among the treasures were a number of photograph albums – which Hannah has kept to this day – as well as two of her mother’s best dresses and a piece of her embroidery.
‘The night before my daughter got married, I couldn’t sleep. I went down to the kitchen and put on one of her dresses and just sat there,’ Hannah said.
In 1989, she went back to Poland for the first time and visited her old house, as well as the labour camp in which she had been interned and the farmhouse.
‘I needed to see where my mother had been killed,’ she said. ‘I could find the house but not the well. Eventually I met a local woman who told me that a shed had been built around the well so that children didn’t fall into it.
‘We found the shed and there, inside, was the well. Everything was exactly as I had remembered. I felt strangely elated to have found it but it was awful and very sad.’
The Holocaust Educational Trust works to raise awareness of the Holocaust. Visit het.org.uk