My Mother’s Secret:
Can you hear the cries within the hollow graves of the 6 million people or more that were senselessly killed because one man deemed them inferior? Can you feel the pain, anguish and horror as they marched to their deaths within the confines of a chamber filled with gas? The mass murder of Jews under the German Nazi regime from 1941-45 will haunt the world forever. There are many who hated and still do the Jewish people and then there were some that risked it all to protect and safe so many. Unselfish, relentless and brave these people became the champion of so many in order to keep them sheltered and safe from persecution. Jobs, homes, lives destroyed at the hand of one mad man who deemed himself superior to all. As we hear the many voices within this novel, this important story that is being told by so many, we teach about one woman, Franciska and her daughter Helena whose kindness, bravery and caring shined through this tumultuous time.
Listen carefully as you hear the individual voices of the five people that are telling you their stories, their hardships, joys, triumphs come through loud and clear as we begin with Helena, Franciszka’s daughter. The story opens with Helena telling about her family consisting of a father, brother, a mother that was like a perfect rose or orchid and a brother who meant more than just the world to her. Her father was a Nazi sympathizer who would argue his viewpoints much to the horror of her mother. Hitler deemed himself superior and the sad part is so many believed his doctrines and were brainwashed by his actions and words. Blaming the Jewish people for everyone was his mantra. When Hitler became Chancellor her father left to join him as Helena, her brother and her mother move back to Poland. Leaving and not looking back her mother buys a small house with some land to raise chickens and grow vegetables. With so much distrust in the world it is amazing that Helena and her brother Damian understand that the differences in people is what makes them unique and special.
Helena is smart and decides to try for a secretarial job hoping to help her family. With a mother who was always doing favors for everyone providing eggs, help and more it is no wonder that she was able to get the perfect dress for Helena’s interview with Casmir Kowalski. But, although she gets the job one person within the company would make sure that she was not quite well received. How far will you go to protect your family? How much will you give up in order to keep others safe? As her relationship with Casmir turns from casual to more serious both have to decide on what is really important to them. When his father calls him to come and work in his business which he transferred over to him. The truth about his family, his father and his wife comes out and they separate as she remains with her mother and now we learn the secret that she could not ever share. Within the cellar and the attic of their small house they are hiding several people to protect them from the German’s and being killed.
Next, we hear the fate of her brother Damien and one young German soldier who seeks refuge within her home. Bronek is the next voice we hear as we learn about his family. Bronek and Dawid are brothers that have always been inseparable. The war would change that for them. Dawid in school because of his older brother, his mother working hard cleaning the clothes of many families and his father in construction until that fateful day. Liquor and too much drinking can take the lives and has taken the lives of many as it did his father when he took a fatal fall. Leaving Bronek to be the primary wage earner he took on any job he could until promoted to manager of the company. This allowed him to hire his brother as bookkeeper. But, this is where the story changes as both brothers are introduced to two women. They marry and then the Hitler and Stalin send in their troops to their town and the next thing you know they are looking for someplace to hide. But, before they do something tragic happens to his brother and her young child. With a young child of his own Bronek needs to find somewhere safe for his family to hide and is about to give up when Franciszka agrees. But, what happens next will tear at your heart and your inner core as the Germans come and what they do is more than horrific. Then we learn the fate of Damien who is Helena’s brother. The fear, the unhappiness and the heartache comes through loud and clear as we now meet Mikolaj.
How does one woman find a way to outfox the German commander and her neighbors? The characters in this story are real. Their lives will eventually intertwine and the end result will take you back to a time that we cannot and will never forget. Mikolaj’s father was a doctor revered by everyone. His mother is the world to him and he was always bringing home beautiful jewelry and dresses for her. At times she would even give the dresses away to those who needed them since some her not her style which explains how Helena came to wear the vanilla dress to her interview and why his father saw her wearing it on the street. But, things changed for them one day when they went to the market and purchased eggs from Franciszka. A fight broke out they were hit and their eggs fell all over them leaving both mother and son covered. When his father learned of the incident he forbad them from going to that market and would send their servants to purchase what they needed but there is much more. As the war takes more than just some prisoners and this revered chief of his hospital is relieved of his duties but not before he is threatened and made to save the life of a German Commander, and does. Not everyone is evil and this same man warns him about what is about to come and hopes that he can gain safe passage or find somewhere to hide. Once again Franciszka comes through but what happens when a German officer comes to her house is quite compelling and what his father does proves he is still in control. Suspicions high, fear even higher this strong, brave and courageous woman does more than just safe the lives of these people she restores their faith and spirits too.
Next, we hear the voice of Vilheim a young German soldier who did not believe in what was being done. With parents that were not close to him and a grandmother who was his champion Vilheim learned the value of life, caring and giving. Her final words before he leaves to go to war: Trust No One: Never were more honest and truer words spoken and next we learn his fate. Told to kill, not care what he does will surprise the reader and honor what his grandmother taught him. But, what he has to do to stay alive and hide from the war will endear you to Franciszka even more and the courage and compassion depicted and related by author J. L. Witterick in this story allows the reader to know just what research she did before writing it and how dedicate she was to sharing the stories of these people.
The final voice is the first one that of Helena and of course in the Epilogue the author’s thoughts. A documentary film dedicated to the memory of Franciszka Halamajowa title “No 4 Street of Our Lady,’ tells the story of this Catholic woman living in Sokal, in easterhn Poland during WWII. Only 30 of the 6000 Jews living in Sokal survived the Holocaust. She hid 16 in her hayloft over her pig sty, and a hole under the kitchen floor. With her special brand of love, caring, intelligence and understanding this woman never cared for own comforts but for that of others.
If you neighbors came banging on your door hoping they could seek refuge with the confines of you home what would you do? Would you risk your life and that of your daughter to save people you hardly know? This documentary depicts the story of this Polish-Catholic woman who saved so many during the Holocaust and pretended to be a Nazi sympathizer.
One powerful story outstandingly written and told in the voices of so many to help readers understand the lengths this woman went to in order to save so many. In memory of those who did not survive and to those of us who will never forget I dedicate this review to you and to the two courageous women who never faltered. Helena and Casmir what happens to them and those they saved you will have to learn for yourself. Did they forget this amazing woman learn that for yourself. The pictures below will make the story come alive. One book that everyone needs to read and one book that will remind you that this really did happen.
Fran Lewis: reviewer
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