This film tells the remarkable, yet little-known, story of Francisca Halamajowa, a Polish-Catholic woman who rescued 16 of her Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust, while cleverly passing herself off as a Nazi sympathizer. On the eve of World War II, more than 6,000 Jews lived in Sokal, a small town in Eastern Poland, now part of Ukraine. By the end of the war, only about 30 had survived, most of them rescued by Halamajowa. For close to two years, she hid her Jewish neighbors in her tiny home and cooked and cared for them, right under the noses of German troops camped on her property as well as hostile neighbors. Two families were hidden in the hayloft of her pigsty, and one family in a hole dug under her kitchen floor. In the final months of the war, she also provided shelter to a German soldier who had defected - an act that almost led to her execution. Even among the small minority of Poles who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, Halamajowa's is by all accounts ... Written by
I first had the opportunity to see this at the Salem Documentary Film Festival in February 2010 ...but I managed to miss it. My second chance came in May 2010. The small screening room space -usually nearly empty- was almost overflowing, and virtually all of the viewers were senior citizen couples. From a few overheard comments and from audible audience reactions, I got the impression that for them this was some sort of emotional ritual of reliving "the good war." But some quick calculations revealed most of the audience would have been small children -or not even born yet- during the WWII fighting.
The story is horrific. Several "aktions" slowly got rid of the Polish/Ukranian town of Sokal 's Jews, some by railroad to concentration camps, and some who knows how, and many shot in mass executions and tumbled into impromptu graves or pits. One woman - a Polish-Catholic lady named Mrs. Halamajowa - hid for nearly two years about half the Jews that survived in that town To put it mildly their living conditions weren't very nice. They had to stoop over all the time; after liberation some had forgotten how to stand up straight. They had to whisper all the time; after liberation it took weeks -or sometimes even months- for their normal speaking voices to return. They couldn't get proper medical treatment, which caused one child to sustain a lifelong limp. Once after repeated near-discoveries, they made a group decision that their overall welfare outranked the welfare of one individual, and they would have to kill a four-year-old who couldn't keep quiet.
As a film I initially thought it a pretty conventional and unremarkable documentary. The film's armature is common: gather a group of survivors from more than one country, travel to the scene of the crime, reminisce and see what's left, and tot up the descendants. There were lots of shots of older people, some traveling shots, some talking heads, a little scenery, and plenty of slow pans over various surfaces in old buildings.What really caught my interest was the details of the story itself, especially as they came out in the later part of the film. They were presented partly by the ubiquitous "professor" and partly by a few bits of information from older people who were only tangentially involved, but mostly through old photographs and the memories of the remaining participants. By the end of the film I was fully involved in the compelling story.
What was different about this one woman who did what so many others did not? What motivated her? What did the neighbors feel, about both the attempt to get rid of their Jewish compatriots and about hiding some of them? How widely was the secret shared at the time? How did the woman avoid seemingly inevitably coming into conflict with the German occupiers? How did the woman avoid being turned in for a reward by an alert neighbor (significant rewards were offered by the occupiers)? Was the secret shared more widely -or even celebrated- after liberation?
The banal logistics of hiding so many people must have not been at all simple. The location is a "town", with lots large enough to contain a garden/orchard or a few farm animals, yet close to neighbors eyes and ears. How did so many people go to the bathroom all the time, and how was their poop disposed of? What did so many people eat, and where did the food come from? How did the woman handle the economics of supporting both herself and all the people she was hiding for almost two years?
*** SPOILER ALERT ***
The woman's motives did indeed include a considerable amount of the elevated moralism we tend to appreciate: she threw her husband out of the house because of his Nazi tendencies, she explained what she did was "only human," and she asked "would you do the same for me?" But there seemed to be more than a little bit of "I'll show you I'm smarter than you" too. She psychologically manipulated lots of people, in particular she completely bamboozled all the German occupiers. And it seemed the secret feelings of superiority and of "winning the game" were significant. Much of what she did was "good spy-craft," which she somehow understood and treated as important.
We'll never know exactly how many people shared knowledge of some part of her secret. It must not have been very many people ...or the secret wouldn't have remained a secret. But at least a few folks put two and two together and figured out what was up. Those that figured out part of the secret seldom asked questions about the rest, maybe out of a good heart, but maybe because they didn't want to be involved and the best route to "plausible deniability" was to not know much.
After liberation what had been a secret remained a secret. The Jews exited their hiding places, but not in a public way. Mrs. Halamajowa made it clear to them they shouldn't tell who had hidden them, and they didn't - nobody in Sokal found out after the war. Anti-Jewish and anti-hiding sentiments remained, and there was more likely to be retribution from liberated neighbors (especially ones that had been tricked) than there had been from the German occupiers, all of whom could be fooled. Mrs. Halamajowa moved to another town, and although her family marveled at the strange names and addresses of some of those who corresponded with her, they didn't really understand. In fact her grandchildren never knew the full truth until more than a quarter century had passed and they had moved to a different country.
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