The Counterfeit Countess: A Remarkable Story of Courage and Compassion — Book Review

Cover image of The Coun­ter­feit Count­ess: The Jew­ish Woman Who Res­cued Thou­sands of Poles Dur­ing the Holocaust Eliz­a­beth B. White Joan­na Sliwa

In their new book, The Counterfeit Countess: The Jewish Woman Who Rescued Thousands of Poles During the Holocaust, Elizabeth B. White and Joanna Sliwa introduce the world to the remarkable Josephine Janina Mehlberg.

Despite saving thousands of lives and leading efforts to care for Polish prisoners in the Majdanek concentration camp in Lublin, Poland, Mehlberg was a largely unknown figure until now. Even the historical records that do mention her do not give a full history of her audacious story. Nor do they capture the scope of her courage.

What makes her story even more astonishing is that Mehlberg was not a countess at all. She was, in fact, a Jew living under the false identity of Countess Janina Suchodolska, a gentile member of the Polish aristocracy.

Blending accounts from Mehlberg’s unpublished memoir — which started the project that would become this biography — and their own research, White and Silwa give an impressive account of Mehlberg’s life and work.

They chronicle her years as a young mathematician and her marriage to Henry Mehlberg. They cover her experiences during the early days of the war, her escape to Lublin, and her equally harrowing defection to the West after the war.

The bulk of the story, though, centers on Mehlberg’s time as Countess Suchodolska during WWII. Staying true to her memoir, the biography focuses mainly on her work with the Polish Welfare Committee and Polish resistance.

As a public member of the Polish Welfare Committee and a secret member of the resistance, Mehlberg helped to facilitate the rescue of thousands of Polish prisoners. She also went toe to toe with Nazi camp officials, convincing them to allow the delivery of food and medicine to prisoners.

And she did it all knowing that at any moment, her true identity could be revealed and lead to her murder. What’s more, she knew she couldn’t even trust some of her own accomplices and colleagues, as some of them held similar antisemitic views as their Nazi occupiers.

Given the danger Mehlberg faced just living under a false identity, it would have been more than reasonable for her to live as quietly as possible to keep from drawing attention to herself.

That’s what many people in similar situations did. Had Mehlberg done that, her story would still have been an incredible one of survival and perseverance.

But that’s not what she chose to do. She calculated that her single life did not outweigh the potential good she could do for the many with her fake status as an aristocrat.

That is a pattern that emerges throughout the book. No matter the danger, her question was always what more she could do. Her decisions always came down to how many more people she could help rather than her safety.

Faced with obstacles and setbacks that seemed insurmountable, Mehlberg pushed forward. Drawing on her deep sense of compassion and astute observations about the complexity of human nature, Mehlberg time and again convinced Nazi commanders to allow her to care for prisoners they saw as barely human.

One thing that stands out about The Counterfeit Countess is that intermixed with the depiction of Mehlberg’s larger-scale efforts, like the food delivery program, are stories about smaller acts of kindness.

Cover image of The Coun­ter­feit Count­ess: The Jew­ish Woman Who Res­cued Thou­sands of Poles Dur­ing the Holocaust Eliz­a­beth B. White Joan­na Sliwa
The Counterfeit Countess: The Jewish Woman Who Rescued Thousands of Poles During the Holocaust — by Elizabeth B. White and Joanna Sliwa

Things like getting the Nazis to allow the prisoners to celebrate Christmas. Or taking a risk to get a bible returned to an elderly prisoner being transferred out of Majdanek. These are acts that, juxtaposed against such immense death and destruction, may seem insignificant.

But it was through these acts that Mehlberg inspired prisoners. She gave hope to people who were systematically having their humanity ground out of them. These stories, aided by the insight and detail provided by Mehlberg’s memoir, are the book’s most poignant moments.

They are the parts of the book that leave a mark on your soul and stay with you long after you’ve finished reading.

There is no way to know what tangible impact these acts of kindness had. Still, it seems likely that the number of lives Mehlberg saved is an underestimation because of them.

The heart of The Counterfeit Countess is Mehlberg’s story and, more specifically, her voice. White and Sliwa, however, also provide a lot of information about the unique political situation in Poland during the occupation. Whether readers see this as an asset will depend significantly on their own interest in the history of the time.

It will undoubtedly be one of the book’s strengths for avid history buffs. It illuminates nuances of WWII and the Holocaust that often get lost in the larger global history of those events. For some folks, however, the level of detail regarding logistics, plans, and background may be a bit overwhelming in parts.

Still, this additional context is essential for understanding the political terrain in which Mehlberg was operating that made her efforts possible. It also highlights many other unsung and nameless heroes who crossed Mehlberg’s path and even saved her life.

In addition to a gripping story of one woman’s heroism, the book is an essential work of scholarship. It offers an often vivid portrayal of living under Nazi occupation during WWII.

There is no part of Mehlberg’s story that is not remarkable. Even the book’s creation story is riveting. Knowing how close Melhberg’s story came to being lost in the annals of history makes it feel all the more precious.

White and Silwa do a masterful job of using Mehlberg’s own voice to tell her story and expand on it. They bring her to life with richness and color.

Mehlberg is a hero who should be remembered. She should be celebrated alongside people like Oscar Schindler. Hopefully, this book will be a significant first step in that direction.

The Counterfeit Countess is currently available at most bookstores and in audiobook format. Be sure to check out our other book reviews right here.

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