SOCIAL SCIENCES

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

S. & S Jan. 2024. 336p. ISBN 9781982189129. $28.99. HIST
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Holocaust historians White and Sliwa (Jewish Childhood in Krakow) masterfully piece together the previously untold story of a Jewish mathematician who, during the Nazi occupation of Poland, masqueraded as a countess while she helped free and feed thousands of Poles imprisoned at the Majdanek concentration camp. Josephine Janina Mehlberg (1905–69) was born to a wealthy Jewish family. Shortly after the Nazi invasion of Poland, she and her husband obtained forged identity papers. White and Sliwa find her listed under a number of names in historical records (and her recorded age kept getting younger), but her most notable alias was as Countess Janina Suchodolska, an aristocratic identity she took on while trapped in Lublin, Poland. There she worked with the Polish Central Welfare Council to aid malnourished Polish prisoners at Majdanek with regular deliveries of bread, soup, and even, at one point, already-decorated Christmas trees. She also personally smuggled supplies and messages to resistance fighters and persuaded SS officials to release thousands of Poles from Majdanek. White and Sliwa draw on numerous archives, genealogical research, and the subject’s own unpublished memoir.
VERDICT A full portrait of a woman who saved thousands in Nazi-occupied Poland, with broad appeal for readers interested in Holocaust and eastern European history and survivor’s stories.
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