The Counterfeit Countess
Elizabeth B. White and Joanna Sliwa
Simon & Schuster
January 23rd, 2024
The Counterfeit Countess by Elizabeth B. White and Joanna Sliwa recounts how a Jewish woman saved thousands of non-Jewish Poles during the Holocaust.
It is the story of Dr. Josephine Janina Mehlberg, a Jewish mathematician. Using the identity papers of a Polish aristocrat, she worked as a welfare official while also serving in the Polish resistance. The “Countess” persuaded SS officials to release thousands of Poles from the Majdanek concentration camp. She won permission to deliver food and medicine. 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. She eluded detection, and ultimately survived the war and emigrated to the US.
Elise Cooper: How did you get the idea for the story?
Elizabeth B. White: In 1989 I gave a conference paper on the Majdanek Concentration Camp located in Poland. Afterwards I was given the unpublished memoir of a Jewish mathematician, Janina Mehlberg. They explained she survived the Holocaust in Poland by pretending to be a Polish Countess and aided prisoners at Majdanek. This story I read was so amazing I questioned if it was true. In 2017/18 I found enough information to believe the story was true. I then reached out to Joanna, an expert on the Holocaust in Poland, to see if she would verify the claims.
EC: How would you describe the countess?
Joanna Sliwa: She was determined, charismatic, and an insistent woman. She never took no for an answer. Remember, she was a “fake Countess.” But was very good at masquerading as an Aristocrat, a non-Jewish woman. She was a Jewish woman and a scholar who was passionately committed to save people. I think she was courageous, resilient, compassionate, analytical, quick-witted, and innovative.
EC: How did she pass herself off as a Christian and a Countess?
JS: She grew up surrounded by members of the Polish aristocracy in a small town. Her father was a landowner, so she had more of an advantage than other Jews. She knew different languages including French, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, and German. Her PHD was in philosophy, but her expertise was in mathematics. Her colleagues, friends, and neighbors were others in academia, so she knew how to function within other levels of society. This helped her to pretend to be a Countess later.
EBW: She and her husband were rescued by an old family friend, an actual Count. He took them to Lublin Poland and gave them false identities.
JS: One of the reasons the Nazis never detected who they really were was because they went to a completely different city, Lublin. They did not have family or other contacts, no connection to the city.
EC: Was it weird to you that it was the reverse, a Jew rescuing non-Jews?
EBW and JS: Yes. We do not know any similar story.
EC: How did being a mathematician help her?
EBW: She did her dissertation on logical mathematical reasoning. In it she emphasized that intuition and imagination are needed. She used innovative, intuition, imagination, constantly weighing the risks to help others. For example, when she received permission to deliver soup cans, she had them fitted with false bottoms to smuggle messages and supplies to give to the resistance.
EC: You explain in the book she was a woman of contradictions-please explain.
EBW: She defied so many stereotypes. A woman in the male world of mathematicis, a patriot even though discriminated against because she was a Jew, saved non-Jews as a Jew, and was anti-Communist under Russian domination in Poland.
JS: This is what makes her story so special, with the many contradictions. This shows that she was a complex person that could not be put into one box.
EC: What do you want readers to get out of the book?
EBW: Be inspired by her courage and example. To see how she had tremendous compassion and empathy. She writes about the terrible choices the war forced people to make. She understood that none of us is defined by the best or the worst that we do.