Polish Ghetto
An elderly woman holds her grandchild in the ghetto in Szydlow, Poland on Dec. 20, 1940. (AP)

The Banality of Good

Unlikely Heroines In A Hellish Time

Franciszka and Helena Halamajowa were two ordinary Poles with the extraordinary courage to hide Jews and a defecting German soldier in their attic during WWII. J.L Witterick on her new novel on the women who risked their lives to save their neighbors.

I am always amazed by stories where seemingly ordinary people display unpredictable, heroic behavior under the most dire of circumstances. Do we really know someone then, until we see them under duress?

In My Mother's Secret, a book inspired by the courage of two otherwise unknown Polish women during the second World War. Franciszka and her daughter, Helena, do not stand out from a crowd in any way. They are poor peasants struggling to get by, like so many others at that time. However, when asked by Jewish families and one defecting German soldier for shelter, Franciszka does not turn them away. Instead, she risks her and her daughter's life to provide these people with a hiding place. I often wonder if anyone in Franciszka’s life—or in the lives of those who were saved—could have predicted such a grand act of selflessness and generosity.

Franciszka is not an educated woman, but she has street smarts. For example, she invites the German Commander over for dinner while the Jewish families are hiding in adjacent hidden spaces of the house so that it would appear she was a Nazi sympathizer. When her neighbors question the amount of water she is taking from the well, without missing a beat, she responds that she has a skin disease. She asks that her food be wrapped in newspaper at the store because she doesn’t read, but wants to pass it along to the families in hiding who want to keep up on current events. Franciszka had to be extremely careful to remain undiscovered. At that time in Poland, merely supplying a Jew with a piece of bread was an act punishable by death. Franciszka exhibited a strength of character that might never have been detected if it were not for the horrors of the Holocaust. Both she and her daughter have since been recognized in Israel as The Righteous Among The Nations.

Franciszka and Helena's story is a poignant reminder that we all possess the potential for greatness, even if it may not appear that we have the resources for it.

Franciszka and Helena’s story is a poignant reminder that we all possess the potential for greatness, even if it may not appear that we have the resources for it. It is not the material items we own, but what is within that can make a difference. I wonder how many other women have this kind of strength that goes undetected in everyday life. In my book, I’ve purposely woven this concept into another character, Felicia, the wife of a very accomplished and highly regarded Jewish doctor. She is a-stay-at-home mom and compared to her prestigious husband, Helmut, she seems rather unremarkable. However, once they are in hiding, Helmet becomes depressed as result of his own sense of helplessness. It is Felicia who holds the family together—not with prestige, but with her spirit, her internal strength and optimism. The couple’s son, Mikolaj, says, "I always thought my mother could not live without my father, but it was the other way around."

There is untapped potential in all of us. More often than not, it goes undetected. Perhaps that is why I felt so compelled to write Franciszka’s story. Within many of us lies a hero...if we choose to reveal it.

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