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Mordechai Podchlebnik - Chelmno

Film | Accession Number: 1996.166 | RG Number: RG-60.5026 | Film ID: 3294, 3295, 3296, 3297

Mordechai (Michael) Podchlebnik recognized the corpses of his wife and children when unloading bodies from a gas van at Chelmno. He was a witness at many postwar trials, including the Eichmann trial. He tells Lanzmann of his escape from Chelmno and how he tried to inform people about Chelmno, but he was not believed at first, until his story was corroborated by another escaped prisoner.

FILM ID 3294 -- Camera Rolls #1-7 -- 01:00:16 to 01:32:27
Lanzmann is seated with Podchlebnik at a table surrounded by windows. Off camera is an interpreter, Fanny Apfelbaum. The tape jumps frequently and the audio is poor. Lanzmann asks about Podchlebnik's past, saying that he looks young. They talk about his experience as an athlete after the war. Lanzmann asks to cut.

01:00:58 Podchlebnik says that before the war, his parents dealt with cattle. The Germans began deporting Jews from his town of Kowo. 01:06:16 Lanzmann asks if Kowo was a Jewish city. Podchlebnik says there were 3,000 Jews there. 01:06:46 Lanzmann asks about Kowo's population. Podchlebnik says that it was an old city, at least 800 years old, populated by about 6,000 people, mostly Jews. The Jews occupied all professions and relations with the Poles were good. Podchlebnik was a cattle tradesman, taking cheap cattle from Kowo to sell in Łódź.

01:11:37 Podchlebnik was married with two children; he was 30 when the Germans invaded. The Germans burned the synagogue, and all men were required to present themselves for work. For a few months, he repaired the bombed out bridges. He says that the Germans did not really create a ghetto but moved some people around to keep Jews in a certain place. After 6 months, they moved half the Jewish population to Loubetski. Podchlebnik worked in a restaurant owned by a Polish friend of his. Meanwhile, he thought the relocation was merely a matter of transferring populations.

01:22:31 Podchlebnik stayed in Kowo with official permission because of his job; everyone else was transported to Bouga. He went there on his own after a few days because of loneliness. 01:27:14 Podchlebnik walked to Bouga, which was not a ghetto but nobody was allowed to leave. The Jews thought nothing of this, leaving for work during the day and always returning. This went on for a year. After that, they were deported to Chelmno.

FILM ID 3295 -- Camera Rolls #8-10 -- 02:00:03 to 02:30:37
25 men were chosen to work at Chelmno, taken in a single truck with an armed jeep following. Podchlebnik describes in detail his arrival at Chelmno. They stayed in the cellar of a courtyard of a castle, getting a little coffee, a little sugar, and a piece of bread each day. He describes the names written on the wall under the inscription "from here no one leaves alive." The first day, 20 were taken to work in the woods. He was among the remaining five. He saw piles of clothing and shoes. He had heard of such things but says that nobody believed it.

02:11:23 Podchlebnik describes the rumors of Jews being killed. He talks about a transport of Jews arriving at Chelmno. They were told that they must go to the bathroom, where they made to undress; they exited from the other side of the building where they were loaded into trucks and taken away to be gassed. After that, he and the four others who remained from those selected for work were forced to gather up the clothes left behind. Lanzmann presses for more details about the gas vans. Podchlebnik says that the 20 men sent to the woods dug graves, and a few did not return because they were killed for not wanting to work.

02:20:36 Podchlebnik describes the state of mind of the men who came back that night. They were exhausted, they had seen family members now dead, and witnessed a Ukrainian killing a man who had survived the gassing. He tells of putting people four in a grave. Ukrainians were the ones who unloaded the gas vans and removed jewelry. The third day of work, Podchlebnik saw his wife and children. He begged to be killed, but the Germans would not do it.

FILM ID 3296 -- Camera Rolls #11-13 -- 03:00:07 to 03:33:46
Lanzmann asks about a report suggesting that workers warmed up using the cadavers. Podchlebnik says he saw no such thing. He describes the set up of the gas vans and the role of the Germans, saying that they would not go near the operation. He tells of one German who noticed that a Jew had a diamond and gold, so he jumped into the van. He was locked inside and gassed with the Jews, he does not know whether or not the Germans knew he was in there. He relates a story told by one of the Poles that one time when the doors of the trucks opened, living Jews fell out. He says that was impossible.

03:06:21 He found a friend and after 10 days, decided he must escape. He begins to tell the story of his escape, where he asked for a cigarette, then used an eating knife to cut through the tarp. Reel ends, a new one begins. He continues, saying that he jumped and entered the woods before the Germans could get their bearings. A Ukrainian found him and asked about another person - his friend had also jumped - he lost him and took a serpentine path. He stayed two days in a barn, hidden from the Germans who were looking for two escapees. He ran to a village and got bread from someone there. He fled to Grabuch and met with some of his wife's family. Nobody wanted to believe him. He met his friend there, and then the town knew and believed him.

03:22:42 Podchlebnik tells of meeting his friend, and that he was so happy that his nose started bleeding, which he cannot explain. After this, his friend insisted on staying in Grabuch and he never saw him again. After his escape, people in Grabuch were chained by the feet, and there was no chance of escape. He later attempted to tell his story to a Jewish Council, and was told if he didn't stop he'd be turned over to the Gestapo.

FILM ID 3297 -- Camera Rolls #14,15,24A -- 04:00:06 to 04:22:44
Later, a Jewish Council member wanted to talk to him, and he came back and refused 3,000 zlotys to tell it. He refused the money but told the story anyhow, which gave him credibility. He organized a train to get many of his relatives out, but they were stopped by the Gestapo and killed.

04:10:01 Podchlebnik says that his whole family died at Chelmno. Lanzmann asks about what died in his soul, and Podchlebnik says that he is glad that he forgets, that it is not good to talk about his experience, but he does so because he feels obligated to. He received books about the Eichmann trial where he was a witness, but did not read them. Lanzmann asks why he is always smiling, he answers "what do you want him to do, cry?" He escaped by grabbing a broom and pretending to work. He got out of the train station and found a relative. He hid in a ghetto outside of Łódź for two years. Once he even passed Auschwitz without knowing it. Parts of this sequence have no video - the scenes chosen to be used in the final Shoah film - the audio remains. 04:21:21 Shots of Lanzmann listening, looking intently.

Event:  May 1979
Production:  1985
Created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of "Shoah," used by permission of USHMM and Yad Vashem
Record last modified: 2021-06-03 12:48:04
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