-By Soul Sword-
Genre- Holocaust,Historical, historical fiction, World War II
My Mother’s Secret by J.L.Witterick is a historical fiction novel. It is based on a true story of Franciszka Halamajowa and her daughter Helena, who saved the lives of 15 jews during the holocaust. The book is set in Nazi-occupied Poland (1939-1944 – WW II) where the German soldiers persecute and kill Jews without any explanation. Anyone found sheltering Jews are killed too.
The novel narrates how Polish woman Franciszka and her daughter Helena, manage to hide two Jewish families and a German soldier in their small house during the Nazi invasion. The book paints a vivid image of the conditions during the period and is a gripping, fast-paced novel.
The story unravels from the point-of-view of four characters- Helena (Franciszka’s daughter), Bronek (a Jewish man), Mikolaj (an 8-year-old Jewish boy) and Vilheim (a young German soldier). Each part begins with one of these characters narrating how their normal life toppled over when the Nazis and Russians invaded Poland. At the end of each part, we discover how Franciszka ended up giving them shelter despite being just an acquaintance.
Throughout the story, the characters express subtle compassion towards each other. The courage and determination they exhibit as they fight for survival are remarkable. All the characters are well written and the reader can easily empathise with them.
The character that stands out most is the main character Franciszka. Franciszka is a Polish woman who moves to Sokal (Poland) along with her two children, after leaving her ‘Nazi-sympathiser’ husband. She comes across as a loving and understanding mother. She treats all people equally, no matter what their origin is.
Franciszka’s character quickly deepens into this compassionate, courageous and determined woman. Throughout the book, Franciszka’s presence of mind is laudable when faced with complications. Her actions go to show that just courage isn’t enough, but a great deal of strategy and intelligence is necessary to handle life and death situations. Despite facing personal loss, Franciszka stays committed to her endeavour in saving the Jews.
Helena (Franciszka’s daughter) takes after her mother. Her account of the story sets the background to the story and forms the crux. She is a simple girl who loves her family. Though she yearns to leave Poland and go away with her lover and fiancé Casmir Kowalski, she understands her mother’s actions and decisions (to hide Jews). She chooses to stay with her mother and see it through together till the end. She doesn’t go back on her choice despite knowing that if they are found protecting Jews they would be killed. She does everything within her power to keep the families hidden.
Casmir Kowalski (Helena’s romantic interest) is an equally well-written character despite being a secondary character. He is the general manager at a garment factory and stands by Helena always. He is a pillar of support to both Helena and Franciszka from the beginning of the novel until the end. They wouldn’t have gotten much far without his help. His warm and loving care for Helena lightens the grim storyline.
Mikolaj’s account was my pick of all the accounts since it is told from a child’s point of view. His description of a loving father and mother is a pleasant read. Though it is narrated by a child, it doesn’t lose the seriousness of the situation.
Bronek’s account is the most traumatic of all. This is the part of the book where one actually reads how people are left with nothing overnight if you are on the weaker side of the war. This is also the most pathetic part of the book, as it mentions the atrocities committed by the German soldiers against the Jews.
Vilhiem’s account proves that not all German’s support Nazism. As a compassionate young soldier, he tries to stay away from the war and ends up hiding in Franciszka’s house to survive.
It is awe-inspiring to read how Franciszka and Helena manage to hide 2 families and a German soldier (in their tiny house) without any of them running into each other. The book ends with Helena’s account mentioning what happened to all the characters after the war ended. Helena’s thoughts about her mother which are the closing lines of the story are touching and thought-provoking.
Franciszka’s account of the story is left untold. We don’t find out what was running inside her mind when she went through everything. Franciszka’s feelings remain an enigmatic mystery at the end of the book. This heightens the respect for her character.
The book wastes no time in explaining politics. The circumstances are explained in just a couple of sentences, which makes it easy for the reader to get the gist. One such example is:
“The Ukrainians don’t trust the Poles (Polish), the Poles don’t trust the Ukrainians, and they both don’t trust the Jews.”
The politics and violence take place outside the narrative, yet the impact of both is felt throughout the book. The book is thrilling as it transports the reader right next to the characters, who are on the brink of death always.
The language in this book is simple and can be read by school-goers too. It is a small book but has powerful and deep content. What I loved the most about this book was its happy and hopeful ending (despite it being about holocaust). The epilogue by the author was emotive.
‘My Mother’s Secret’ celebrates humanity and womankind. It depicts the love and respect every human should have for life and how precious life is. Though one can finish reading the novel quickly (around 180 pages), its impact stays with the reader for days together.
For packing such a deep and powerful content in a simple language within such a small book, I rate this book 4.8/5.
The book can be purchased here.
Some excerpts from the book:
“War gives you a sense of urgency about your life because there is so much death waiting for a chance. Maybe that’s why it’s possible to feel love in the midst of so much chaos.” – Helena
“People are like water in a pond where you cannot see the bottom. You think you know where it is shallow and where it is deep, but it is only when you have to dive in head-first that you find out where it is truly deep.”-Bronek
“I think it simply came down to not being able to turn away people who would have faced a certain death. Does that make us exceptional? Or is it only exceptional because so many others chose not to so the same thing?”-Helena
-By Soul Sword-