Monday, April 15, 2024 -
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Polish ‘countess’ saved thousands

By Shira Li Bartov

WARSAW — In December, 1941, a petite, elegant woman left her home in Eastern Galicia, where she was known as the Jewish mathematician Janina Spinner Mehlberg.

Joanna Sliwa, left, and Elizabeth White together tell Janina Mehlberg’s story in ‘The Counterfeit Countess.’ (Sliwa courtesy Claims Conference; White courtesy Erica Land Photography)

Three days later, she arrived in Lublin — soon to be an epicenter of Nazi extermination in occupied Poland — with a new identity.

She was now Countess Janina Suchodolska, a self-assured Polish aristocrat — and she would soon negotiate the release of thousands of prisoners from the Nazis and save thousands more through deliveries of food and medicine.

Beneath her masquerade as an aristocratic welfare official, Janina concealed that she was an officer in the underground Polish Home Army, where she in turn concealed that she was a Jew.

This enigmatic character is the heroine of The Counterfeit Countess, a new book by Elizabeth B. White and Joanna Sliwa.

Janina’s story was nearly lost to history, disclosed in an unpublished memoir that slipped through three pairs of hands before White and Sliwa embarked on corroborating it.

After WW II, Janina and her husband Henry Mehlberg immigrated to the US and settled in Chicago, where she taught mathematics at the Illinois Institute of Technology and he taught philosophy at the University of Chicago. She wrote her memoir shortly before her death in 1969.

Her husband translated the manuscript into English and tried unsuccessfully to publish it. Before his own death in 1979, he entrusted the package to Arthur Funk, a history professor at the University of Florida. Funk also sought in vain to interest publishers

The authors supplemented Janina’s testimony with wartime documents and statements from her colleagues and former prisoners at Majdanek, the camp where she worked, along with details about her life that Janina herself did not deem important to record — such as her first 34 years.

Born Pepi Spinner in 1905, she enjoyed a privileged childhood in today’s Zhuravno, a town that was then Polish and is now part of Ukraine. Her father was a wealthy estate owner who socialized with Polish nobles. The family experienced little overt anti-Semitism and Janina absorbed the Polish patriotism of her class. Along with Polish and French, she spoke German, English and Russian.

Although Janina’s childhood was shattered by WW I, when Jewish landowners lost their land and, after the war, pogroms swept through Eastern Galicia killing between 100,000 and 300,000 Jews, Janina thrived as a star mathematics student at Jan Kazimierz University in Lwów (now Lviv). She obtained a doctorate in philosophy and in 1933 married Henry Mehlberg.

German forces took Lwów in 1941. With the help of Ukrainian nationalists, the Nazis immediately carried out mass shootings of Jews and prominent Polish professors, including many non-Jews who were friends of Janina and Henry. Trucks full of Jews drove daily to a hill above the city, where they were shot and buried in mass graves.

Then Lwów’s Jews were ordered to move into a ghetto. They fled with the help of Janina’s family friend, Count Andrzej Skrzynski, who promised to procure them false papers, jobs and a place to live in Lublin.

Transformed into Count Piotr Suchodolski, Henry got an agricultural job. But Janina — now Countess Suchodolska — was not content to evade death narrowly. Instead, she followed one mathematical principle: “The value of one life is less than the value of multiple lives, and her life, if she survived without seeking to save others, would have no value.”

While working undercover for the Polish resistance, Janina walked into Majdanek several days a week to meet with mass murderers and argue that saving a certain number of Polish lives would serve their interests.

She took advantage of a shift in the war, when the Nazis realized they would not conquer the Soviet Union as quickly as they had hoped. By February, 1943, Russian forces had crushed the Germans at Stalingrad and Allied bombs were incinerating German cities.

Germany needed workers to replace the men at the front.

Janina used this bargaining chip to deliver increasing amounts of food and clothes to Polish inmates of Majdanek.

When typhus raged through the camp, defying quarantines and even spreading to German soldiers, she negotiated the provision of medicines. On top of her authorized deliveries, she smuggled more food and messages from the Polish resistance.

She also pushed for the release of Polish inmates who were rated unfit to work, such as the sick, orphaned children and disabled detainees. In total, Janina negotiated the release of at least 9,707 Poles, including 4,431 from Majdanek.

Janina’s efforts could not be directed toward Jews, only to those considered by the Germans to be racially Polish.

This meant that even within the Polish Home Army, Janina had to keep her Jewish identity secret.

Her efforts to help Jews were confined to the margins. She knew that Jews lived together with Poles at Majdanek and that each compound’s kitchen fed prisoners from the same cauldrons. As she strove to deliver more and more food into the camp, she held onto hope that it would enrich soup fed to all the prisoners, staving off starvation for thousands of Jews alongside Poles.

But on one visit to Majdanek in May, 1943, she smelled the burning flesh of the last Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. She also saw 30,000 Lublin Jews deported to the Belzec death camp.

Janina was one of the first Poles to learn how the “Final Solution” worked, including 42,000 Jews shot at Majdanek, Trawniki and Poniatowa on Nov. 3 and 4, 1943.

Janina never described how she, a Jew in disguise, was affected by witnessing the slaughter of Jews. That might be because she intended her book for a Polish audience in the 1960s, when anti-Semitic narratives about the Holocaust were prevalent in the USSR.

She also considered herself as much a Pole as she was a Jew.

Many Polish Jews did not feel they had to choose between two identities in the 1930s.

In the final chapter of her memoir, excerpted in The Counterfeit Countess, she described taking a tour of Majdanek with a Swedish delegation after it was liberated.

“I thought of those who had been broken, physically and morally, who had betrayed other lives in the hope of saving their own,” she said.

“However we risked our necks, it was of our own will. But they were in bondage, and all human pride was beaten out of them. They didn’t ask to be martyrs. Most of them no doubt wanted nothing more than to live out their days in an average, humdrum existence, without great impact and without glory.

“There is nothing left to do for them but to remember,” she wrote. “And in the way of my ancestors, intone ‘Yisgadal, v’yiskadash . . . ’”

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