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Motke Zaidel and Itzak Dugin

Film | Accession Number: 1996.166 | RG Number: RG-60.5050 | Film ID: 3782, 3783, 3784, 3785, 3786, 3787, 3788, 3789, 3790, 3791, 3792

Motke Zaidel and Itzak Dugin are survivors of Vilna. They tell the story of their extraordinary escape from the Ponari camp, digging a tunnel for months, where the dogs that caught them backed away whimpering because the men smelled of death. The interview took place over two days in the forest of Ben Shemen (an Israeli forest resembling Ponari) and in Mr. Zaidel's apartment in Peta'h Tikva with the family of Zaidel.

FILM ID 3782 -- Camera Rolls 2-4 -- Foret Ponari
CR2 Lanzmann, Zaidel and Dugin meet in a forest in Israel which resembles the forest of Ponari, next to Vilna. Before the war the forest was a beautiful place to go on holiday. After the Holocaust, Zaidel says it no longer seems beautiful, he associates it with the martyrs of the region. There were eight mass graves in the forest. One held 24,000 bodies. Zaidel and Dugin were forced to count the bodies every day, for German records.

CR3 Mr. Zaidel was born in a village called Zvilzianik, 24km from Vilna. He was not in the Vilna ghetto from the beginning. Mr. Dugin was in the ghetto from the beginning because he was born and raised in Vilna. Zaidel was born in 1925 and Dugin in 1916. Dugin remembers the poor treatment of the Jews before the ghetto was created. Germans led a pogrom there. When the Germans made the ghetto they created a system of certificates; whoever had a yellow certificate was sent to a second ghetto. Those without certificates were left in the first ghetto and eventually taken to the Ponari forest and executed. During the three days this lasted, Dugin hid with his family in a room as he did not have a certificate. Dugin describes the great fear all who lived in the ghetto experienced since they knew that every month they could be taken to be executed. There were 80,000 Jews in Vilna before the German occupation. After the first ghetto was liquidated, between 15,000 and 17,000 Jews were still alive. These Jews were put to work.

CR4 Citizens of the Vilna ghetto knew that Jews were being killed in the Ponari forest. Peasants would hear gunshots, and survivors of executions in the forest would come back to the ghetto in the cover of darkness and talk about what had happened. Zaidel says while he harbored no illusions to what was going on, he always knew he would survive. Dugin had no such certitude at the time. Dugin was made to work in a group responsible for constructing roads and railroad tracks in a camp called Idnalina. When he was sent to work in Palimonacz in October, he realized that he would starve or freeze to death. He escaped and returned to the Vilna ghetto in 1942. He tried to get his parents and sisters to join him in Vilna, for the time thinking it was safe. But before they could make the trip to Vilna the definitive liquidation of the ghetto began. Dugin managed to escape, but lost all contact with his family. A resistance group was forming in the ghetto at the same time.

FILM ID 3783 -- Camera Rolls 5-7-- Foret Ponari
CR5 Dugin and Zaidel were not members of the resistance. They did not know each other before they were sent to work in the Ponari forest. While the ghetto was being liquidated a group of about fifty Jews from Vilna hid in a cave, called a malina, for about fifty days. Other malinas existed, Dugin also hid in one. The Germans kept two groups of Jews for labor: the Hakape which consisted of mechanics and metal workers, and the Kaïlich which consisted of tailors and other tradesmen. The Jews who could defend themselves left the ghetto early on and joined the Partisans. The Germans could not find the malinas. They only discovered them when people left to find food. These people were captured and tortured for information. The malina Dugin hid in held fifty people, of all ages, with difficulty.

CR6 The Lithuanians were complicit in bringing Jews to the Vilna ghetto. Dugin did everything he could to avoid falling into the hands of either the Germans or the Lithuanians. He explains that for someone like him it was easier to escape, hide and survive. The will to survive existed in all victims, but it was more difficult to survive if someone had a family to take care of. Dugin lost contact with his parents when he fled the ghetto. When five people left the malina Dugin was hiding in, the Gestapo found them, tortured them, and then captured everyone hiding in the malina. Back in Gestapo headquarters in Vilna the able men were separated from the women, children and elderly who were taken away in trucks. Dugin says the men knew the women, children, and elderly were killed. Dugin thought he was going to be killed one morning when he was taken to the Ponari forest in the same trucks, but instead he was taken to work there cutting down trees. An initial group of forty workers was tasked with constructing two bunkers in the forest, one for the prisoners and one for the S.S. guards. When construction was completed, forty more workers were brought to help dispose of the ninety thousand dead bodies lying in mass graves in the forest.

FILM ID 3784 -- Camera Rolls 7A,7,8 -- Foret Ponari
CR7 Brief shots of Dugin without sound. The Obersturmführer told the prisoners working in the Ponari forest that their job was to erase the mess the Lithuanians had made. Lanzmann comments on how pitiful it was how the Germans were blaming others for the massacres they were responsible for. The Obersturmführer claimed that if they worked well, they would be permitted to go to Berlin and practice in their professions. Zaidel knew this to be a bluff, as it would be in the Nazis' interest to kill all who knew what was taking place. He and the other prisoners wondered what they could do to stay alive. In the meanwhile, the Obersturmführer made it clear no one would escape. He had them shackled, and threatened to hang the first attempted escapee from a nearby tree. There were 50-60 S.S. Nazis guarding the prisoners at the forest site, and 84 Jews. Eighty were men and 4 were women who worked in the kitchen. There were no children. Dugin came up with the idea to build a tunnel underneath the bunker.

CR8 Zaidel describes the bunkers the prisoners and S.S. guards lived in. They were originally Russian-dug gas reservoirs. Out of seven, two had been lined with stones. The prisoners lived in one, and the Nazis in the other. The remaining pits contained the corpses of the Jews of Vilna who had been liquidated. When they finished building the bunkers, the Obersturmführer told the prisoners they would be disposing of the murdered bodies. Zaidel claims none of them had imagined that they would perform this work. The prisoners were shackled above their calves day and night, making it impossible to walk properly. There was a division of labor: some would open the mass graves, build pyres, transport bodies, remove gold teeth from the victims or pulverize the victims' bones. The ashes were mixed between layers of sand and dirt. 64,000 bodies were burned.

FILM ID 3785-- Camera Rolls 9-11 -- Foret Ponari
CR9 Each morning the groups of prisoners were given a different task. One group was responsible for building the pyres, an extensive process Dugin describes. The pyres were up to seven meters tall. The last few meters were made up of thousands of bodies, which Zaidel and Dugin would pour flammable fluids on, and then more kindling. The pyres would burn for seven or eight days. Dugin compares opening the graves to opening a tin of sardines: the bodies of the victims were tightly packed. The bodies underneath could have been there for up to eight months, and were often flattened by the pressure imposed on them by more recent bodies deposited on them. Chlorine was poured on each layer of bodies.

09:30 CR10 The bodies on top of the grave were recognizable. Some of the bodies were clothed, and one could tell from their uniform what sort of work they had performed. Dugin explains how they were forbidden from saying aloud the words "dead" and "victim." Instead, they had to refer to the murdered victims as "figurin", as figurines or rags. The prisoners made to carry the bodies were called "Figurenträger." Another workers, called the "Figurenziehen" opened the graves with the use of a large metal bar with a hook on the end.

14:26 CR11 The Germans ordered the workers to never use the words "dead" or "victim." If they did use them, the prisoners were beaten. The Germans did not give an explanation for this order. When they were first made to open the graves, the Germans had the prisoners work without the use of tools. The prisoners sobbed when they first saw the horror before them, and were thus beaten harshly by the guards and worked hard for two days without tools. The dead bodies were referred by Germans as, "Schaizdreck," meaning garbage, in an attempt to distance themselves from the reality of what they were doing: committing mass murder and hiding the evidence. Zaidel says that even after they had been rescued, no one could stand being near the prisoners for the smell of the dead and smoke clung to them. Zaidel tells of the time the Germans brought dogs with them to the forest. Zaidel smelled so strongly of death that one of the dogs ran away from him after it smelled his hand.

FILM ID 3786 -- Camera Rolls 12-14 -- Foret Ponari
CR12 When Zaidel and Dugin managed to escape the Ponari forest, their horrible stench saved them. They had stopped in exhaustion to rest under a tree when some Germans began to search near where they were. Even though one of the dogs smelled Zaidel, it did not give the two men away as they smelled just like all the dead victims in the area. After some time, the other prisoners became used to the smell of the corpses. They were made to take the boots off of the dead, clean them, and then wear them. Zaidel performed this work for four months, from January to April 1944. He claims that about 20 percent of the prisoners had the ability to overcome their situation, while the other 80 percent did not. At one point they opened up a smaller grave, and Dugin recognized his entire family, including his mother, three sisters and their children. He recognized them by their clothing, and even by their faces, as they were still somewhat preserved in the winter months. Another prisoner, Shalom Gol, recognized his wife and children.

13:08 CR13 Four generations of the Zaidel family sit together with Dugin in Zaidel’s apartment in Israel. Zaidel's wife, children, daughter-in-law, grand-daughter and mother-in-law are present. They introduce themselves. Dugin picks up the interview where it left off; in the forest where Dugin found his family in a mass grave. They had been hiding together in a malina when they were discovered.

21:23 CR14 The Nazis had the prisoners open the oldest graves first. Dugin discovered his family in the most recent grave, near the end of his time working in the Ponari forest. Discovering his family was a very difficult experience, he was not so numbed by what he had thus far experienced to not feel the horror of the discovery. The prisoners began forming their plan of escape one month into their time in the forest, after they realized they would not survive. They salvaged tools from the dead they burned, and also had the tools they used in their own trades. Zaidel worked as an electrician, lighting up the graves at night, and thus had screw drivers and pliers at his disposal.

FILM ID 3787 -- Camera Rolls 15-18A -- Famille Ponari
CR15 Seventy-nine men and 4 women were prisoners working in the Ponari forest. The youngest was a boy fifteen years old, and another was seventeen. A committee of about four people brainstormed the many escape plans. Zaidel’s daughter, Hanna, whispers into her father’s ear and Claude stops the filming to record what Hanna says. The interview goes on with Zaidel explaining that all of the prisoners were in agreement that they should escape via a tunnel under the bunker.

CR16 Hanna Zaidel expresses that she would like them to explain why they chose to escape by digging a tunnel. They all understood that they had nothing to lose. It was very difficult work, digging with limited tools after a hard day of work. The foreman, Abraham Ambourg, was responsible for keeping check of the prisoners' actions and gestures and reporting then to the guards. He knew what the prisoners were up to. He too was a Jewish prisoner.

11:21 CR17 As they dug the tunnel, the prisoners had to reinforce the sandy walls with wooden beams they smuggled in. The biggest challenge was hiding the sand from the tunnel between walls and in the roof without being discovered. The tunnel ended up being 35-40 meters long, but about four meters in there was no air to light a candle. Zaidel built an electrical system to light up the tunnel. Digging the tunnel was a process: four men would enter the tunnel digging with their hands or tools salvaged from victims, until their hands bled. One of the prisoners, named Youri, was an engineer. He managed to steal a compass, which the prisoners used to dig the tunnel in the correct direction. Hanna makes a comment and Claude asks his interpreter for a translation. They did dig in the wrong direction once, and feared they would open out into one of the graves or the guard's bunker.

CR18 Zaidel says that the prisoners would dig the tunnel in groups of four to six at a time. After an hour it would become too difficult to breathe, so another group would take over. Once, they were nearly discovered. The guards ordered a roll call while a group of prisoners were digging in the tunnel. However, the prisoners had made a signal using the electrical system Dugin had installed, and thus the prisoners in the tunnel were warned. Everyone was present for the roll call, a fact Zaidel claims he is still stunned by. 27:43 Clap for CR18 Zaidel explains how they believed they dug the wrong way. It took three months to dig the tunnel. Dugin was the first to break into open air.

FILM ID 3788 -- Camera Rolls 19-21 -- Famille Ponari
CR19 About half of the prisoners did not know about the escape plan until a few days before it happened. The prisoners who did know took care to work while the other prisoners were passed out from exhaustion. They knew they were reaching the end of their tunneling when the soil changed from sand into blacker dirt, interspersed with tree roots. With one last meter to dig there was discussion about the order they should leave. Dugin was assigned to go first as he knew the road outside and had the pliers needed to cut the fence. He wanted to leave last so that he could throw a rock into the mine field, killing all the guards, bunker and destroying the site, but as he knew the geography of the area he was assigned to go in the first group.

11:13 CR20 Only now in the interview does Itzhak Dugin tell Lanzmann that he was a prisoner along with his father and two brothers-in-law. Although his father was 55 at the time, he was very strong and thus selected to work in the Ponari forest. Both father and son had separate opportunities to escape, yet chose not to in order to stay together. The prisoners in charge of building the tunnel decided in what order everyone would exit. Each group was made up of about ten people, with one as the group leader. Those who were on the committee were first group to leave through the tunnel. The second group was comprised of the young men who intended to enlist with the partisans. Those who had worked the most on the tunnel were assigned an earlier exit group.

22:40 CR21 When everyone was informed of the escape plan they all felt joy, though they were always silent. Everyone was in agreement about escaping. Dugin cut his chains off with his pliers, and the chains of twenty men. After this, each person was responsible for cutting the chains of the person behind them. Zaidel and Lanzmann have a disagreement about the presence of a rabbi. From a previous interview with Shalom Gol, Lanzmann heard a story of a rabbi named Goschaus or Goschkaus, who performed a small religious service and elected to stay behind as he felt too old to escape. Zaidel does not remember this incident at all but claims he would if it had happened.

FILM ID 3789 -- Camera Rolls Zaidel 22-24 -- Famille Ponari
CR22 Once Dugin had opened the end of the tunnel, they cut the electricity. When he stuck his head out of the tunnel Dugin saw a group of German soldiers looking in the direction of their tunnel exit. Dugin claims the exit of the tunnel was so precise it was only half a meter away from where they had planned it to be. With so many people leaving from the tunnel, the prisoners were discovered and fired upon with machine guns. Dugin and his group began to crawl into the forest, but only about one hundred meters in Dugin heard soldiers and had to change his direction. He fell into an unopened grave and told his group to continue without him, but they ran into some guards and another alarm was sounded. The dry branches they walked on gave them away.

11:14 CR23 Only about fifteen Jewish prisoners managed to escape the Ponari forest, and some were wounded by gunfire and mines. Zaidel thinks not everyone made it through the tunnel. Dugin's father and brothers-in-law did not survive, only those in the first two groups managed to run away. Zaidel's daughter, Hanna, tells Lanzmann how her father did not speak about his experiences while she was growing up. She had to wrest the details from him over the years.

20:04 CR24 Hanna claims to love her father just as any other daughter would a father, his experiences haven't changed that. She claims that the attitude people have in Israel towards Holocaust survivors isn't a good one, but doesn't elaborate what that attitude is. She describes how Holocaust survivors are often tired of life, and find it very difficult to live a normal life.
FILM ID 3790 -- Coupes Foret Ponari
Silent shots of the forest, some scenes with Dugin and Zaidel in the distance then walking towards the camera. A man walks across the field with a briefcase.

FILM ID 3791 -- Coupes Foret Ponari -- Camera Rolls unidentified, 5D,3A,7B,8B,10A,8C,7C,8A
Silent shots of the field. CUs of Dugin with sunglasses. Dugin and Zaidel seated beside one another, various CUs. 6:47 CUs of Lanzmann in the forest sitting on a tree stump.

FILM ID 3792 -- Coupes Famille Ponari – Camera Rolls 22A,23B,24A,24D,24B,22B,23A,24C
VAR silent shots of the Zaidel family in the apartment. 

Event:  September 18-19, 1979
Production:  1985
Created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of "Shoah," used by permission of USHMM and Yad Vashem
Record last modified: 2022-07-28 22:02:47
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