A debut novel of Jews and Germans, families and soldiers hidden from the Nazis.
Based upon the true story of Franciszka Halamajowa, Witterick’s novel is told by four narrators, beginning with Franciszka’s daughter, Helena. Raised in Germany with her older brother, Damian, Helena recalls her mother’s hard work and generosity. A strict, selfish man, their father sympathizes with the Nazi movement. In contrast, Franciszka judges people by their behavior, and her return to Poland effectively ends their marriage. In Sokol, Damian begins working at an oil refinery, enabling him to support the family and to become a skilled machinist. Helena lands a secretarial job at a garment factory, where she falls in love with the general manager, Casmir Kowalski, a good man. Like Franciszka—who entertains German commanders while harboring Jews—Casmir understands the importance of appearing to befriend officials on different sides of the conflict. Yet Helena is afraid to embroil Casmir in her mother’s secrets, so she cannot follow him to Germany when the Nazis invade. The perspective then shifts to those Franciszka sheltered. She rescues Bronek, his wife and child, as well as his brother and sister-in-law, from certain death in a Jewish ghetto, offering them asylum in her pigsty. She rescues Dr. Mikolaj Wolenski and his family, providing them safe haven under the floorboards of her kitchen. She also rescues Vilhelm, a German soldier, giving him refuge in the cramped attic. Franciszka’s thoughts remain a secret, revealed only through her own behavior. The Halamajowa family’s courage is inspiring. Yet, instead of illuminating the transcendence of their work, the simplicity of Witterick’s prose dulls the story. Instead of universalizing the tale, the underdeveloped characters and thin descriptions flatten the effect.