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The Counterfeit Countess : The Jewish Woman Who Rescued Thousands of Poles During the Holocaust - Elizabeth B. White

The Counterfeit Countess

The Jewish Woman Who Rescued Thousands of Poles During the Holocaust

By: Elizabeth B. White, Joanna Sliwa

Hardcover | 15 May 2024

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The astonishing story of Dr. Josephine Janina Mehlberg--a Jewish mathematician who saved thousands of lives in Nazi-occupied Poland by masquerading as a Polish aristocrat--drawing on Mehlberg's own unpublished memoir.

World War II and the Holocaust have given rise to many stories of resistance and rescue, but The Counterfeit Countess is unique. It tells the remarkable, unknown story of "Countess Janina Suchodolska," a Jewish woman who rescued more than 10,000 Poles imprisoned by Poland's Nazi occupiers.

Mehlberg operated in Lublin, Poland, headquarters of Aktion Reinhard, the SS operation that murdered 1.7 million Jews in occupied Poland. Using the identity papers of a Polish aristocrat, she worked as a welfare official while also serving in the Polish resistance. With guile, cajolery, and steely persistence, the "Countess" persuaded SS officials to release thousands of Poles from the Majdanek concentration camp. She won permission to deliver food and medicine--even decorated Christmas trees--for thousands more of the camp's prisoners. At the same time, she personally smuggled supplies and messages to resistance fighters imprisoned at Majdanek, where 63,000 Jews were murdered in gas chambers and shooting pits. Incredibly, she eluded detection, and ultimately survived the war and emigrated to the US.

Drawing on the manuscript of Mehlberg's own unpublished memoir, supplemented with prodigious research, Elizabeth White and Joanna Sliwa, professional historians and Holocaust experts, have uncovered the full story of this remarkable woman. They interweave Mehlberg's sometimes harrowing personal testimony with broader historical narrative. Like The Light of Days, Schindler's List, and Irena's Children, The Counterfeit Countess is an unforgettable account of inspiring courage in the face of unspeakable cruelty.

About the Authors

Elizabeth White, PhD, is a senior historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where she regularly speaks to invited audiences and contributes to the museum's online Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. She has also written official statements for the museum, speeches for its top leaders, provided content for its exhibits and social media, and given press, radio, and television interviews.

Prior to working for the USHMM, Dr White spent a career at the US Department of Justice working on investigations and prosecutions of Nazi criminals and other human-rights violators who immigrated to the United States, and has written numerous scholarly articles.

Joanna Sliwa, PhD, works as Historian at the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) in New York, the only organisation that negotiates with the German government for compensation for Jewish Holocaust survivors. She previously worked in the Global Archives Department at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, where she managed academic initiatives to promote the history of the organization. She has taught Holocaust and Jewish history at Kean University and at Rutgers University and has served as a historical consultant and researcher for PBS television programs, including Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr and In the Name of Their Mothers: The Story of Irena Sendler.

Dr Sliwa's scholarship has been featured in American, British, German, and Polish publications, both edited volumes and journals. Her most recent book, Jewish Childhood in Krakow: A Microhistory of the Holocaust, received the 2020 Ernst Fraenkel Award from the Wiener Holocaust Library in London.

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