A Holocaust Remembrance Day Special Program

In a special International Holocaust Remembrance Day program, Gramercy Books will host noted historians and Holocaust experts Dr. Elizabeth “Barry” White and Dr. Joanna Sliwa. Their collaboration, The Counterfeit Countess, tells the astonishing story of mathematician Dr. Josephine Janina Mehlberg, aka Countess Janina Suchodolska, a Jewish woman who rescued more than 10,000 Poles imprisoned by Poland’s Nazi occupiers. The authors answered several questions I had in advance of their January 29th, 7pm visit where they will be in conversation with acclaimed historian Robin Judd. Tickets available on Eventbrite.

 

Was it difficult to gain access to Dr. Mehlberg’s unpublished memoir?

EBW: Efforts were made to publish Janina’s memoir after she died, but no publisher would accept it. It was only a fluke that I received a copy of the memoir in 1989 immediately after I gave a paper on Majdanek at the American Historical Association convention. The American history professor to whom Janina’s husband had entrusted the memoir attended the panel on which I spoke and afterwards handed me a package containing a carbon copy of the memoir. This is the version of the memoir that we used to tell Janina’s story.

JS: In 2003, Dr. Arthur Layton Funk, who gave the carbon copy of Janina’s memoir to Barry, donated the memoir to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Archives. It was a copy that he edited, and which included photographs of Janina. This copy has been sitting in the archive for years. Accessing the text was not difficult at all. However, no one reached for it. Therefore, Janina’s story, which is also the title of the donated material, was not discovered.

 

Oscar Schindler saved 1,200 Jews from being deported to Auschwitz. Mehlberg saved 10,000! Is it because of Spielberg’s film that Schindler’s heroism became so known? Why haven’t we heard about Dr. Josephine Janina Mehlberg until now? 

EBW: It is largely thanks to the Jews he saved that Schindler’s story has become known and his accomplishments acknowledged. Because they worked for him, they knew who he was and what he was doing to protect them. Many of those he rescued kept in touch with him after the war, helped to support him, and ensured that he was honored by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. This provided the inspiration for Thomas Keneally’s prize-winning novel Schindler’s List (also Schindler’s Ark), on which the Spielberg film is based.

On the other hand, the non-Jewish Poles whose release from captivity Janina negotiated did not know her role in rescuing them. Even the Majdanek prisoners who credited Countess Suchodolska with their survival did not know her true identity. After World War II ended, she continued to use the false identity of Janina Suchodolska, as she still faced danger in Poland, both from its communist rulers because of her service in the anti-communist resistance, and from antisemitic discrimination and violence. Until now, the only written source containing the truth about her identity was her memoir, which she wrote in the 1960s.

JS: What makes Janina’s story unique is that, in contrast to those traditionally regarded as rescuers, Janina was a Jew who provided rescue and relief for non-Jewish Poles. She could not help the Jews of Lublin, where she had fled from Lwów. She had no prior connections in Lublin. Besides, Janina herself was trying to survive as a Jew under a false identity. And yet, she used her position in the Polish Underground and in the Main Welfare Council (a relief organization approved by the German authorities that could assist non-Jewish Poles only) to provide wide-ranging assistance to her fellow Poles who suffered terribly under Nazi rule. In the past 20 years, scholarship about gendered experiences in the Holocaust has been flourishing. Similarly, research about Jewish responses to the Holocaust has introduced many heroic stories of Jews’ efforts to survive, of Jews who helped their fellow Jews, and of those who documented the persecution and mass murder of Jews. In June 1942, Emanuel Ringelblum, the creator of the Secret Archive of the Warsaw ghetto, wrote that future historians would have to dedicate “a fitting chapter” to the role of Jewish women during the war. Most recently, Judy Batalion asked in her book about female Jewish resisters why she has not learned or known about these women. It took a long time for Jewish women’s voices to be heard and for their experiences to be included in Holocaust scholarship. Even when Funk tried to make good on his promise to Janina’s husband to publish Janina’s memoir, he ran into a wall. A notable male Holocaust historian commented to Funk that this one woman’s story did not merit a publication. Many other factors affected the reasons why we have not known the full story about Janina. We hope to discuss them at the event.

 

We look forward to hosting both of you on January 29th for our Central Ohio community. What do you hope readers will take away from your story about Dr. Mehlberg’s feat?

EBW: We are so excited to have this opportunity to share Janina’s story! I hope that readers will come away from it not only impressed by her amazing courage but also inspired by her deep compassion and the lessons she drew about human nature from her wartime experiences. She observed the best and the worst of human behavior and learned that we are each of us capable of both. She was helped, and even saved, by enemies who she knew had participated in terrible crimes, and she observed how heroic resistance comrades could at times be self-serving or hateful. She wrote very movingly about the terrible choices that the German occupation forced the people in Poland to make between staying true to their values and survival. So, although she believed that people should be accountable for their actions, she decided for herself not to judge others. She met each person as a fellow member of what she described as “the vast suffering human family,” and if any of those family members needed help, she saw it as her duty to help them.

JS: I very much look forward to sharing Janina’s story with the Central Ohio community and I am grateful for the opportunity. I believe there are many takeaways from the book. One that stands out to me is that one person can make a difference, especially when acting in the context of a network. Janina made decisions independently to engage in highly visible and dangerous work, but she could not have done what she did without the support and involvement of an entire group, composed mainly of other women. These were Polish women who used their creativity to smuggle food and medicine to prisoners and to establish lines of communication. They exhibited great bravery and perseverance when they prepared food from rationed products, fundraised at a time when Poles suffered poverty as a result of Nazi looting and destruction, procured medical items, traveled as couriers, conducted rescue operations, and more. Janina’s example shows the importance of leadership and cooperation in times of crisis. Janina continued her involvement in social welfare after the war, which speaks to her dedication to ensuring respect for human life and the future of Poland.  

 

Written by Linda Kass

About the author: I began my career as a magazine writer and correspondent for regional and national publications and am now an assistant editor for Narrative, an online literary magazine. My debut novel, Tasa’s Song, was inspired by my mother’s early life in eastern Poland during the Second World War. My second historical novel, A Ritchie Boy, was inspired by my immigrant father's role as a military intelligence office in World War II. My third novel, Bessie, a fictional portrait of Bess Myerson's early life, was released in September of 2023. I am also the proud owner of Gramercy Books, serving all of central Ohio!

Learn more about me on my personal website.