I was in elementary school in the 1970’s, and it has only been in the last few years that I have realized that the world I grew up in was very much a post WWII place. John Wayne won the war in the Pacific every weekend on television in old black and white movies. The old people (grandparents) talked incessantly about the Depression and the war. My mother told me stories of her parents planning to cut her hair and dress her like a boy if the Germans invaded the country. She also told me stories of drilling with fake wooden rifles at school as a matter of course. My Mammaw told me about the families with the stars commemorating their service people in the window, and how the whole neighborhood heard the mother next-door scream when she got word that her son had been killed. My Grandfather was an air raid warden and when my Mammaw died, we found ration books in her things. There was also a plethora of books about the war and the Holocaust and the Nazis. I became interested in the stories when I was very young. I remember reading Anne Frank’s story, and I remember a book called Marta and the Nazis about a young girl in WWII Germany.
I still like to read about the Second World War. I am completely fascinated by the fact that an entire country full of intelligent, normal, people could fall for the charisma and promises of Hitler. I understand what post WWI Germany was like. I understand the desperation, and the longing for a leader to make it all better. I am unable to understand what I call, for lack of a better word, mass hypnosis that allowed such hideous atrocities to be perpetrated against so many innocents. I don’t understand why more people couldn’t see it coming, when it is so obvious what was happening. I don’t understand how people can do those things to other people.
My Mother’s Secret, by J.L. Witterick, is a fictionalized representation of the true story of Franciszka Halamajowa, and her daughter Helena, and peripherally, her son, Damian. Franciszka was Polish and married to a Ukrainian man. They moved to Germany because there were more opportunities for a better life there than in Poland. Franciszka eventually left her abusive husband, who had fallen hook line and sinker for the Nazis, and returned to Poland with her children. They were able to make a new life for themselves, and were living fairly well considering the level of poverty in Sokal, Poland when the Nazis invaded and the war broke out.
Before the war, Sokal, Poland was home to 6,000 Jews. After the war, 30 were left and half of them were saved by Franciszka. This little, sparely written book, that almost made me feel as if I were reading poetry, recounts the perils of hiding Jews just outside the Jewish ghetto, surrounded by German troops with itchy trigger fingers. The story is told without great gobs of gross, excruciating, explicit details of atrocities, which may seem to some people as if that aspect is being played down, but in reality, it makes the menace more real because you are less overwhelmed by the horror. These are people going about their regular lives, when all of a sudden, they are placed in a situation where doing the right thing could end their lives any minute.
We are also told the stories of the people who had to hide. One day, they were working in factories, or as doctors in hospitals, respected and respectable, and in the blink of an eye, they had to abandon everything and hide like animals in a burrow, just to survive. There is also a surprise “hider” that I won’t tell you about, but his life was hanging by the same thin thread as the Jews.
This book is a VERY quick read. Some of the chapters are only a paragraph long, and it is this unique way of breaking up the story that makes it sometimes feel like poetry. I think this would be a great book to teach just about any student seventh grade or above. It could be used in language arts or history, even ethics or government. If you are looking for historical fiction that illustrates the good in human beings even in the midst of horror, this might be the book for you. I felt so uplifted at the end; I think you would too.
Have a great day, and spend part of it with a good book.