Franciszka Halamajowa and her daughter, Helena, are remarkable women who have the courage to become saviors to two Jewish families and a defecting German soldier during the Holocaust. These Polish women were recognized as “the Righteous Among the Nation” after World War II, and author J.L. Witterick paid them tribute by visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. She knew that the framework of their story was true, but was still overjoyed at seeing proof that the women had been honored.
It is an impossible scenario: for over 20 months in a two-room home, Franciszka hides and saves from death half of the surviving Jewish Poles.
William Styron’s SOPHIE’S CHOICE has become an idiom for unbearable choices, and one of the mothers hiding above Franciszka’s pigsty faces an impossible situation. Her baby cries and has alerted the enemy below. “A German soldier climbs up the steps to the loft and whispers to her, ‘Do you want to go with your baby?’” She has only a minute to make a decision that no one could make in a lifetime. It is giving nothing away to say that other horrors of the Holocaust are revealed in this same simple, matter-of-fact language.
"The beauty of HER MOTHER’S SECRET lies in the simplicity of the language and the complexity of the storylines. Each piece is told in a straightforward, almost-childlike manner, belying the layers of information and years and emotions."
Although the style of writing remains the same, there are four separate voices telling their versions of the same story. Helena begins with her family living in Germany, and she captures our attention and understanding as she describes her overbearing father who believes in Hitler. Her mother’s decision to leave him and return to Poland “may have been as subtle as the sight of a small robin sitting on our windowsill in the early days of spring.” That bird’s freedom may have inspired her mother to move to her own freedom. Helen’s teenage years and the beginning of work and an office romance intertwine with the threatening cloud of Nazism. She introduces us to her mother’s incredible ability to take risks and find solutions; Helena’s admiration and love for Franciszka are reasons we have hope for humanity in inhumane times.
Bronek, the next storyteller, is identifiably Jewish and reminds us again of the atrocities in Poland in the early 1940s. Jews who did not wear the Star of David in the open were “shot on the spot and left on the side of the street.” Bronek must care for his wife, his son and his brother’s widow; knowing this, he has saved and buried valuables along the riverbank. His foresight helped immensely as he discovers that gold, even Jewish gold, “since the beginning of time, has worked best.” His family finds refuge with Franciszka, a woman who barely knows them, and he compares her to “water in a pond where you cannot see the bottom.” It is only when you dive in that you find where the water is truly deep. The depths of Franciszka’s bravery and compassion are immeasurable.
Mikolaj, the young son of a Jewish doctor and his pampered, beautiful wife, tells from his eight-year-old perspective how his life changes as the three of them scurry into a hand-dug basement under Franciszka’s kitchen. His father’s ingenuity and wisdom save them, but it is his mother’s surprising strength that sustains them during their months in hiding.
Vilheim is a German soldier. He remembers the mantra his Oma (grandmother) gave when he was drafted: Don’t stand out. Keep a low profile. Play along. Even though he does not hurt anyone, neither is he helping. His conscience forces him to defect, and he is astonished at Franciszka’s courage in allowing him to hide in her tiny attic.
Helena tells the final chapters. Keeping the three locations secret from the ever-present German soldiers, and keeping the people separate and ignorant of one another’s existence, takes a huge toll on her and her mother. “You never get used to the fear. It appears out of nowhere, while you are walking, eating, sleeping, and yet you go on because there is nothing else to do.” She gives some details of the final days of the war and of their hiding so many people for so long.
The beauty of HER MOTHER’S SECRET lies in the simplicity of the language and the complexity of the storylines. Each piece is told in a straightforward, almost-childlike manner, belying the layers of information and years and emotions. This Holocaust story is fresh yet too familiar; we wish we did not know that this could have happened, but we know it did.
Reviewed by Jane Krebs on September 13, 2013