The Counterfeit Countess

From The Wall Street Journal:

The remarkable story of Janina Mehlberg almost didn’t see the light of day. A Holocaust survivor and a mathematics professor in Chicago, Mehlberg stood out for making her way in an academic field dominated by men. But while teaching her students and giving conference papers, she was privately writing an account of her life’s most remarkable episode: her daring impersonation of a Polish aristocrat in World War II, a deception that allowed her to aid Poles who had been imprisoned by the Nazis. She kept it all secret, but her husband, a survivor and distinguished philosopher of science in his own right, preserved and translated the memoir after her death in 1969.

The manuscript found its way to a historian in Florida, but at that time, there wasn’t enough interest in Holocaust stories for publication. Later the historian Elizabeth B. White received a copy of the memoir and then joined with her colleague Joanna Sliwa to bring the story to readers around the world. Stitching the pieces together, the pair collaborated with an international community of researchers to corroborate the memoir’s key elements. In “The Counterfeit Countess,” Ms. White and Ms. Sliwa put Mehlberg’s accomplishments in the context of the awful events of war, genocide, collaboration—all to properly frame the heroism of a woman whose decision to risk her own life saved uncounted others.

Janina Mehlberg was born Pepi Spinner in 1905 in the “comfortable elegance” of an assimilated Jewish family in the town of Zurawno, then in Poland and now part of Ukraine. Although a fragile child, Pepi became a star student, eventually heading to the university in Lwów (now Lviv), where she studied philosophy and mathematics with some of Europe’s leading thinkers. There she met her future husband and fellow-scholar Henry Mehlberg. By the early 1930s they were married and had both found teaching positions in Lwów.

The city was occupied by Soviet forces in 1939 and then by Germany in 1941. The arrival of Nazi rule in Lwów almost immediately touched off a spree of extreme violence against the city’s Jewish population; massacres of Jews by local militias began even before deportations to death camps were set in motion.

With the help of a family friend, Pepi Mehlberg and her husband fled Lwów for Lublin, a city ravaged by the war and near the site of the Majdanek death camp. On the journey, she realized that an audacious masquerade—leaving behind her identity as a Jewish professor to become the “Countess Janina Suchodolska”—would give her the means to help others. Once she became convinced “that she would not survive the war,” write Ms. White and Ms. Sliwa, “fear’s grip on her began to loosen. The problem she needed to solve, she realized, was not how to survive, but how to live what remained of her life.”

Mehlberg’s solution was to save as many people as possible, and she took extraordinary risks to see her mission through. Yet the authors emphasize that she was rigorous and unsentimental. She had fixed her goal of saving lives and then took only appropriate risks to accomplish her task. Allowing herself to be overcome by feeling, she knew, could get her and many others killed.

The Majdanek camp held Polish prisoners forced into slave labor, Russian prisoners of war, and Jews who would be murdered either by being shot at close range or poisoned by gas. The bodies of the dead, ranging in age from infants to the elderly, were incinerated in the crematoria or buried in pits dug by the camp’s inmates anticipating their own murders. As “the Countess,” Mehlberg served as the head of the Polish Main Welfare Council, visiting the camp regularly. The haughty, demanding countess negotiated ways to bring soup, bread, medicine—and hope—to a great many Polish prisoners. Betraying little emotion, this hidden Jew became a sort of patron saint by appearing again and again to witness their suffering and alleviate it as best she could. “Janina’s story is unique,” the authors assert. “She was a Jew who rescued non-Jews in the midst of the largest murder operation of the Holocaust.”

“The Counterfeit Countess,” too, is unsentimental. The writing is matter of fact; the authors include data about the numbers of meals served, the details of negotiations with Nazi officers, the changes in camp conditions as the war unfolded. Mehlberg recognized that the Germans were making trade-offs within their sick paradigm of racial superiority. Would it be more efficient to murder Poles or starve them while they worked? She persuaded Nazi higher-ups to let her organization provide thousands of tons of food to prisoners so that they could do the work that would feed the Nazi war machine. German commanders decided it served their interests to allow “the Countess” to continue providing food and medicine to enslaved workers.

Meanwhile, Mehlberg worked with the Polish resistance to coordinate efforts to undermine the Nazi regime, especially as the Germans began losing the war. In the eyes of those Polish patriots who knew of her courage, she was a hero. Yet when the war was over, Mehlberg (like many Jews who had taken on false identities) recognized that it was still too dangerous to reveal who she really was. The saddest pages of this often sad book describe the antisemitic violence that swept through Poland after the Nazis were defeated. As the Soviet Union imposed Stalinist orthodoxy on Eastern Europe, it was unsafe to be a Polish patriot or a Jew, or to be known to think freely about anything. Some poor souls—currently being tarred as colonizers by blinkered progressives—fled to Palestine. Mehlberg and her husband managed to settle in North America.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal