J. L. Witterick, a Chinese Canadian whose only ties to Judaism are her close friends, has written an inspirational novel, My Mother’s Secret, surrounding the Holocaust. The story, based on actual historical events, is about love, sacrifice, and courage centered on the dark years of the Holocaust.
The book describes how Franciszka and her daughter Helena, despite the threat of death, decide to hide and shelter nine people in their small house. It is based on the 2009 documentary, “The No. 4 Street of Our Lady” where the mother and daughter actually saved half of the Jewish survivors of Sokal, Poland whose original Jewish population were 6,000.
Four different perspectives are presented in the this book: the rescuers, Helena and her mother Franciszka; Bronek, the leader of his family and his sister-in-law, hidden in the pigsty; Mikolai, who with his parents are hidden in a makeshift cellar; and Vilheim, a German soldier defector, hidden in the attic. The secret to their survival is exemplified by the quote in the book, “This is a world where to be insignificant, necessary, or connected are the best ways to survive.”
The author wrote the story after viewing the documentary in the basement of a Canadian synagogue, and knew this story had to be told. She noted, “I thought about my own background since my family immigrated to Canada from Taiwan with basically nothing. I grew up with very little and for a while felt like an outsider, not understanding or speaking the language. I was able to relate to being an outcast. I was inspired and overwhelmed by the incredible courage of this mother and daughter.”
She reduced those saved from the actual number of fifteen to nine, explaining, “I wanted the reader to be able to identify with everyone. I wanted the readers to really feel for the characters so I had to reduce the number saved. With that said, the experiences and the incidents of the characters are true. The major events all happened. I am hoping that to remember someone will likely allow them to live on forever.”
There are very powerful statements made in the book through the character’s voices. For example, Helena notes, “Everyone is sorry, but no one is sorry enough.” Witterick commented, “People might feel for you, but are not willing to do anything about it. Then there are those who take action, like Franciszka and Helena, even with the cost being so high. They risked their lives for people they hardly knew. They are the ones who were going to help despite the consequences. I want to believe that most people have some good in them.”
My Mother’s Secret is an uplifting novel about the dark years of the Holocaust. It shows that hope and humanity does exist and can overpower despair, fear, and horrific butchery. The book is a must read for anyone that wants to understand the historical context of anti-Semitism during WWII; yet, will be comforted by human kindness and courage.