The Counterfeit Countess: The Jewish Woman Who Rescued Thousands of Poles During the Holocaust

Image of The Counterfeit Countess: The Jewish Woman Who Rescued Thousands of Poles During the Holocaust
Release Date: 
January 23, 2024
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by: 

"an impressive portrait . . . part adventure-war story, part inspirational tale of right winning over might."

Elizabeth White and Joanna Sliwa are accomplished historians with just the right background for this book. The story they outline in the introduction is an adventure in itself. Out of the blue one day, White was sent a manuscript from an American History professor at the University of Florida. The aged pages contained the memoir of Janina Mehlberg, a Polish Jew who posed as Christian Polish nobility, using her title and fluent command of German, Russian, and Polish to talk her way in and out of the trickiest of situations.

"The memoir recounted how she had persuaded the SS to allow her to deliver food and medicine for thousands of prisoners in Majdanek concentration camp and how she used those deliveries to smuggle messages and supplies to resistance fighters imprisoned there."

More than food and mail, Janina also managed to convince the Nazis to release thousands of Polish prisoners.

"Over and over, she met with mass murderers to persuade them to help her rescue their victims, and she did so with astounding success: based on wartime rrecords, we have documented that she negotiated for the release form German captivity of at least 9,707 Poles, 4,431 of them from Majdanek."

At first White considered simply translating and publishing the memoir, but previous attempts over the decades failed. White rightly realized the story needed fleshing out for a contemporary audience unfamiliar with the history of the time. And Janina had to be introduced as a character. The reader needed to understand her childhood, her connections, her reasons for fighting the way she did.  Enlisting the help of fellow historian, Joanna Sliwa, White found a good partner to check historical records, photographs, information across continents, in order to verify Janina's story and round out the narrative with her life before and after the war.

The result is an impressive portrait of a woman who "refused to be defined or restricted by stereotypes: She was a woman in the almost entirely male field of mathematics; a patriot in a country that discriminated against her based on both her gender and Jewish identity; a Jew who risked her life to save non-Jewish Nazi victims during the Holocaust, and an anticommunist who served a communist government in order to provide aid to those in need."

Janina comes vividly to life in these pages. We see her grit and determination, her quick thinking and poise, her clever manipulation of vanity and her keen sense that power answers to power. She never let herself look weak when facing the Nazis. She knew that her supposed nobility was a form of armor, and she wore it like the shield it was.

A typical interaction between her and camp officials:

"Taking Janina to the camp office, Geissler declared that he would hand over all the families to RGO care, but only the sick ones among the single youths.

Stubbornly, Janina asserted, 'If you don't give them all to me, I'll go to Krakow about it. Every single one.'

He yielded, but only if she would take them immediately. She suspected he thought it would be impossible, but she agreed, certain that she could get Spolem's transport manager, Piotr Iosiba, to send trucks, as he had when the expellees were released from Majdanek."

Janina indeed rounded up the trucks and freed thousands of Poles. She never backed down, and it was her fierceness that saved her and the others she tried to help. The sad part, of course, is that Janina could save Christian Poles but was helpless to stop the murder of the Jews, murders she herself witnessed. That only drove her to do more, rather than to sink into despair.

The book is part adventure-war story, part inspirational tale of right winning over might, all of it thoroughly researched. It is all the more effective for being true and being told with vibrant energy so that Janina almost steps off the page. The epilogue explains the authors' methodology:

"The dialog in this book is either drawn directly from the memoir or is based on conversations the memoir describes. . . . We end with Janina's voice by quoting the final passages of her memoir."

As the authors note and readers will agree: "The world needs her story."