Resurrecting a rescuer

A new documentary tells the story of a Polish Catholic who saved 15 Jews during the Holocaust.

April 20, 2009 21:46
Resurrecting a rescuer

no 4 street of or lady 248.88. (photo credit: Richie Sherman)

One of the most important people in my life I never met. She died the year before I was born. But as fate would have it, I found myself partaking not long ago in an unusual get-together at her house. Francisca Halamajowa, a Polish-Catholic woman in her late 50s from the East Galician town of Sokal, risked her life to save 15 Jews during the Holocaust, among them my father and grandparents. She hid two Jewish families in her pigsty and one Jewish family in a hole under her kitchen floor. For 20 months, she supplied them with pots of food and carried out their buckets of waste. How exactly my family came to know Francisca Halamajowa is still a mystery. What I do know is that in November 1942, after more than 4,000 Jews had been rounded up in the Sokal ghetto and herded off by train to the gas chambers of Belzec, my grandfather snuck out of the ghetto at night and made his way to her home. When he asked if she'd agree to hide the surviving members of the family, her response, almost preposterous in its matter-of-factness, was: "Why not?" More than 6,000 Jews lived in Sokal before the war. Only 30 of them survived. Had Francisca not taken in my family, the odds are they wouldn't have made it out alive. So, in many ways, I owe her my life. I've known the story, or at least my family's version of it, most of my life. As a print journalist who over the years has written about so many other people's stories, however, it never occurred to me to do anything with this particular story sitting idly in my lap all this time. Perhaps that's because we reporters are trained to keep ourselves out of the picture, to remain detached, impartial - something that wouldn't have been possible for me with my own family story. So when I finally decided to tell it, I opted for a different medium, one I had never dabbled in before: film. Fortunately, I had no problem convincing two colleagues, both talented filmmakers, to team up with me. Barbara Bird, a nurse-turned-documentary filmmaker with a soft spot for unconventional female characters, and Richie Sherman, a gifted cinematographer who does magic with the camera, were my godsends. After spending close to three years together on the road gathering material and testimonies and then racking our brains over how to cut it all down to a feature length piece, we delivered the goods last month when we had our first screening of No. 4 Street of Our Lady. I HAVE my late grandfather, Moshe Maltz, to thank for the title - as well as, perhaps, for the fact that we were able to tell this story at all. On September 1, 1939, the day Germany attacked Poland and the world's worst war began, he started keeping a diary. He wrote regular entries in it until V-E Day on May 8, 1945. Without his detailed account of the period in hiding, without the exact names of people, places and streets he so assiduously recorded, it's doubtful we would have known where to start. No. 4 Street of Our Lady was the address of Francisca's home. By jotting down this almost trivial bit of information in his diary, he enabled us to take over where he left off. Why did he keep a diary? The journalist in me never thought to ask - one of the many things I've wanted to kick myself about in recent years. How did it not occur to me to question him about what he was thinking back then? And why didn't I try to find out more from him about Francisca, that gutsy woman he called "the angel," whose photos and letters he cherished? How did this journalist, adept at hounding sources relentlessly for the most trivial details most readers wouldn't remember by the following afternoon, let this one slip by? Of the 15 Jews saved by Francisca, only four are alive today, among them my father. All four, now grandparents, had been children in hiding, so their recollections of the period are understandably fuzzy. But when they got their first look in more than 60 years at the pigsty where they'd been cooped up for almost two years, something seemed to trigger their memories. Suddenly, they were recalling the cracks between the wooden shafts through which the light would peek in. Suddenly, they were recalling the games they used to play and stories they'd whisper to one another to pass the time. Suddenly, they were recalling the fleas and the lice and the dirty looks they'd get from their parents whenever they made noise. And at the oddest moments, sometimes in mid-sentence, these grown-ups, now in their 70s, would start to cry. Surrealistic is probably the best way to describe the experience of entering No. 4 Street of Our Lady on our first day in Sokal and being welcomed with hugs, tears, flowers and a great banquet feast by its current owners, Oleksandra and Boghdan Ivanchuk and their four children. As I sat around the table overflowing with local delicacies prepared in our honor, I couldn't help but think about how 60-some years earlier my father, then seven years old, was crouched in a pile of hay above the pigsty right behind this house, barely able to move or utter a peep. And as we raised a toast in honor of Francisca, and the men began refilling their shot glasses for yet another, I found myself gazing around the tiny little kitchen where 60-some years ago, she had cooked up big pots of food for her 15 Jewish boarders. The secret trapdoor on the floor, which led to the underground hideout, was still there. For me, as a journalist, the most thrilling aspect of making this film was discovering new bits of information about a story I already thought I knew everything about. In preparation for the trip back, I read and reread my grandfather's diary - since translated into English from Yiddish - at least 10 times, each time finding another nugget about life in hiding that boggled the mind or a previously overlooked vignette about Francisca that revealed the extent of her audacity, a trait without which she could never have pulled this off. I LEARNED, for example, that while she had 15 Jews stashed away in different parts of her home, three German soldiers decided to move in and make her property their headquarters, all the while oblivious to what was going on in their midst. I learned that she decided to take pity on one of them and agreed to hide him in her attic, after he confided in her that he no longer wanted to fight for Hitler, a decision she almost paid for with her life when he was later discovered by the liberating Soviet forces. I learned that when one of her neighbors became suspicious and threatened to report her to the Gestapo, she reassured "her Jews" - as my grandfather liked to call them - that her bags were packed, and if they were taken away, she was going with them. Interviews with members of the other hidden families also provided some gems. A survivor from the family that shared the pigsty with mine told us that Francisca would volunteer to host parties for the German soldiers stationed in the town in order to deflect attention from some of the other activities going on in the house, and at the same time, boost the pro-Nazi image she had taken pains to cultivate. Another survivor, who as a young boy had been hidden under the kitchen floor, told us that neither he nor his parents had any idea there were another 12 Jews being hidden in the pigsty behind the house. "My mother would come out of the hole at night and help Francisca with the cooking," he recalled. "She couldn't understand why, if we were only four people in the house, she was cooking for an entire army. But she never dared to ask." There are only a handful of townspeople left in Sokal who spent the war years there. Seventy-eight-year-old Volodymir, with his sparkling blue eyes, seemed genuinely amused, as he recounted how Francisca would walk around town carrying a big jug of milk. When his mother finally asked her what she was doing with so much milk, Francisca responded (I like to imagine with a twinkle in her eyes): "It'll all become clear in due time." Nobody in town suspected what was going on at No. 4 Street of Our Lady, Volodymir insisted. Mariya, another old-timer, had a somewhat different take on the story. "Everybody knew," she said pressing her finger to her lips. "But we all kept quiet." What regrets I have that I didn't embark on this project 20 years earlier, when my grandparents were still alive. How much better the story could have been had I been able to tap their still vivid memories for more details and explanations. Then again, what I've learned in the process of making this film is that it's no mere coincidence that more and more of these almost unbelievable rescue stories are only beginning to surface now. TWENTY YEARS ago, it would have been almost impossible to travel to this part of the world and gather the testimonies we did. Twenty years ago, many survivors, like my father, were not willing or ready, as they are today, to share their experiences and make the trip back. In trying to break with the past and turn a new page in life, these child survivors often forgot the good things that happened to them along with the bad. But as they've started getting on in years and reflecting on their lives, many have begun acknowledging the existence of a silver lining in the very dark cloud that was their childhood. I'm not sure that Francisca would have been a very cooperative subject either. After the war, she begged my grandparents never to mention the fact that she had hidden them. Her neighbors, she explained, wouldn't have approved. Perhaps one of the most surprising discoveries for me was that Francisca's grandchildren, who now live in the United States, only learned of her exploits years after she died. While growing up in Poland, all they remember are some vague references she made to "helping our friends" during the war. No mention of the fact that these "friends" were Jewish. Neither did the Ivanchuks know anything about the history of their house until just a few days before we showed up at their doorstep. I still don't really have a clear answer to the question that prompted this all: Why'd she do it? After every screening of the film, that's the first question that pops up. Maybe the answer is as simple as she didn't have the heart to turn them away. My hope is that after seeing this film, viewers will ask themselves yet a more challenging question: Would I have done it? Most of us would like to think that we would, but truthfully, does anyone really know? No. 4 Street of Our Lady will be featured at the annual Jewish Genealogical Film Festival, scheduled to be held in Philadelphia in August, and plans are under way to broadcast it on public television in Pennsylvania this fall. A special Holocaust Remembrance Day screening of the film will be held at Drew University in New Jersey on April 22. Judy Maltz was a reporter for The Jerusalem Post and Haaretz. She teaches journalism at Penn State University.

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