Jew­ish math­e­mati­cian Jan­i­na Mehlberg sur­vived the Holo­caust in Poland by pos­ing as the Chris­t­ian Count­ess Suchodol­s­ka. As an offi­cial in the Pol­ish Main Wel­fare Coun­cil (RGO) in Lublin, she won per­mis­sion from the com­man­dant of Maj­danek con­cen­tra­tion camp to pro­vide food and med­i­cines for thou­sands of non-Jew­ish Pol­ish pris­on­ers in the camp. As an offi­cer in the under­ground Pol­ish Home Army, she used the deliv­er­ies to smug­gle sup­plies to resis­tance mem­bers impris­oned in Maj­danek – a place where 63,000 Jews were mur­dered in gas cham­bers and shoot­ing pits. 

On her first deliv­ery, Mehlberg met Dr. Ste­fa­nia Perzanows­ka, the hero­ic orga­niz­er of the infir­mary for Majdanek’s women pris­on­ers. It was the start of a rela­tion­ship that would prove pro­found­ly mean­ing­ful to both women.

SS Cap­tain Dr. Blancke had informed Perzanows­ka the day before that she was to take receipt of a spe­cial deliv­ery for the women’s infir­mary the next day. He warned her not to engage in any con­ver­sa­tion beyond the min­i­mum nec­es­sary to con­duct the trans­ac­tion. That morn­ing, want­i­ng to make a good impres­sion when she received what­ev­er was in the deliv­ery, Perzanows­ka had put on the least filthy of her uni­forms and ker­chiefs and resolved to try to smile, if she could only remem­ber how. It was almost a year since she had been arrest­ed in Radom for Under­ground activ­i­ties. After fif­teen bru­tal inter­ro­ga­tion ses­sions, the Gestapo gave up try­ing to extract infor­ma­tion from her and dumped her in Maj­danek in Jan­u­ary 1943. Since then, the camp’s dai­ly rou­tine of unbear­able suf­fer­ing and unre­lent­ing vio­lence had steadi­ly ground her down and drained her spir­it. She tried to appear con­fi­dent and car­ing to the des­per­ate­ly ill and dying women she could do so lit­tle to help, but in fact she felt almost devoid of human feel­ing, enclosed in a hard, cold shell of indifference. 

As she approached the guard­house, Perzanows­ka saw the trucks laden with cans and bas­kets and real­ized with a shock that this was the deliv­ery she was to receive. Then she entered and saw a slen­der, hand­some brunette with thick dark braids piled on her head like a crown. Suchodol­s­ka of the RGO” Perzanows­ka heard the woman say. Some­how, her voice, her smile, her look of deep con­cern, and the warmth of her empa­thy pen­e­trat­ed Perzanowska’s shell and made her feel human again. The doc­tor stared in won­der at the woman as she read out the list of the food in the deliv­ery and explained that the same deliv­ery would be made twice a week and could include addi­tion­al food and med­i­cines as approved by the camp doc­tor. Here was some­one, Perzanows­ka mar­veled, from that oth­er world — out­side the wire” — that had come to seem a uni­verse away. What efforts had been made, what risks tak­en to bring this largesse to the doomed? Perzanows­ka turned to the med­ical order­ly and asked, May I express the thanks of the pris­on­ers to Madame?” 

Jan­i­na Mehlberg, ca. 1930s.

Janina’s Sto­ry,” Acces­sion Num­ber: 2003.333. Cour­tesy of the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Museum

The SS duty offi­cer, hav­ing become bored as Jan­i­na read the list, was attend­ing to oth­er things. The med­ical order­ly indi­cat­ed to the women that they should step out­side. They did so, then Perzanows­ka, fight­ing back tears, strug­gled to find the words to thank Jan­i­na. You don’t know what it means to me to speak with you, a free woman. Every­one in Field I will be so grate­ful when I tell them what you have done, and so envi­ous when they hear that I met with you!” Jan­i­na looked at the order­ly. Will you allow me to shake hands with the pris­on­er?” She showed him her palms. You see I have noth­ing in my hands, I will not give her any­thing, just shake her hand.” The order­ly looked around, saw no guard was watch­ing, and said gruffly, Shake hands, if you must, but make it fast!” Jan­i­na, tears on her cheeks and trem­bling, took Perzanowska’s hand, squeezed it, and said, Tell the oth­ers in the com­pound that this hand­shake is for all of them, from all of us who are still free!” 

Sud­den­ly, SS guards spilled out of the guard­house and sen­try box scream­ing at Jan­i­na to fin­ish and leave. Perzanows­ka watched in awe as Jan­i­na did not even flinch but calm­ly informed them in prop­er Ger­man that she was autho­rized to speak with the doc­tor about the needs of the infir­mary, to learn the num­ber of patients need­ing spe­cial diets, and to write down what was need­ed. Fur­ther­more, as there were dif­fer­ent kinds of soups and breads in the deliv­ery, she need­ed to show the doc­tor where they were placed in the truck. So Jan­i­na and Perzanows­ka climbed onto one of the trucks, and as Jan­i­na announced which can had what kind of soup and explained what was in the bas­kets, she asked Perzanows­ka under her breath in Pol­ish whether she wished to send a mes­sage to any­one. Perzanows­ka, feel­ing the guards’ eyes on her, gave a slight nod. Then Jan­i­na, note­book in hand, told the order­ly that she had to take down the infor­ma­tion of the per­sons who received the deliv­ery. The obliv­i­ous order­ly stat­ed his name, while Perzanows­ka mut­tered an address in Lublin and a brief mes­sage to be sent there. 

Final­ly, some SS men got in the trucks and drove them off to the pro­tec­tive cus­tody camp. The offi­cer of the day informed Jan­i­na that she was to pick up the cans out­side the gate at 1:00 p.m. the next day. Then Jan­i­na watched as Perzanows­ka walked slow­ly back down the road to hell. It was a vision that would haunt her for days. 

But Perzanows­ka was actu­al­ly smil­ing. There are brave peo­ple on the out­side who are tak­ing risks to help the help­less vic­tims of Maj­danek!” she thought with amaze­ment. And she diag­nosed the cause of the sen­sa­tion that had just come upon her: hope.

Join us for a con­ver­sa­tion with authors Eliz­a­beth White and Joan­na Sli­wa on May 9th at 12 p.m. ET. Reg­is­ter here for JDC Archives Vir­tu­al Book Talk: The Coun­ter­feit Count­ess.

Pho­to of Jan­i­na and Hen­ry Mehlberg, ca. 1950s.

Janina’s Sto­ry,” USH­MM Acces­sion Num­ber: 2003.333. Cour­tesy of the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Museum.

Dr. Eliz­a­beth Bar­ry” White recent­ly retired from the Unit­ed States Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Muse­um, where she served as his­to­ri­an and as Research Direc­tor for the USHMM’s Cen­ter for the Pre­ven­tion of Geno­cide. Pri­or to work­ing for the USH­MM, Bar­ry spent a career at the US Depart­ment of Jus­tice work­ing on inves­ti­ga­tions and pros­e­cu­tions of Nazi crim­i­nals and oth­er human rights vio­la­tors. She served as deputy direc­tor and chief his­to­ri­an of the Office of Spe­cial Inves­ti­ga­tions and as deputy chief and chief his­to­ri­an of the Human Rights and Spe­cial Pros­e­cu­tions Sec­tion. She lives in Falls Church, Virginia.

Dr. Joan­na Sli­wa is a his­to­ri­an at the Con­fer­ence on Jew­ish Mate­r­i­al Claims Against Ger­many (Claims Con­fer­ence) in New York, where she also admin­is­ters aca­d­e­m­ic pro­grams. She pre­vi­ous­ly worked at the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Joint Dis­tri­b­u­tion Com­mit­tee, and at the Muse­um of Jew­ish Her­itage — A Liv­ing Memo­r­i­al to the Holo­caust. She has taught Holo­caust and Jew­ish his­to­ry at Kean Uni­ver­si­ty and at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty and has served as a his­tor­i­cal con­sul­tant and researcher, includ­ing for the PBS film In the Name of Their Moth­ers: The Sto­ry of Ire­na Sendler. Her first book, Jew­ish Child­hood in Kraków: A Micro­his­to­ry of the Holo­caust won the 2020 Ernst Fraenkel Prize award­ed by the Wiener Holo­caust Library. She lives in Lin­den, New Jersey.