How a Fake Jewish Countess Saved Thousands of Poles During the Holocaust

February 28, 2024 | Shira Li Bartov
About the author:

Born in 1905 to a well-to-do Polish-speaking Jewish family in what was then Austria, later Poland, and now Ukraine, Janina Spinner studied mathematics and philosophy at a university, married her fellow student Henry Mehlberg, and then began a career as a teacher. With the arrival of the Nazis, the two sought a way to disguise their identities. Shira Li Bartov writes:

They fled with the help of Janina’s family friend, Count Andrzej Skrzyński, who promised to procure them false papers, jobs, and a place to live in Lublin. Transformed into Count Piotr Suchodolski, Henry got an agricultural job that allowed him to keep a low profile. But Janina—now Countess Suchodolska—was not content to evade death narrowly.

Without revealing that she was a Jew, Janina began working with the Polish underground, managed to negotiate with the Nazis for the release of almost 10,000 non-Jewish Poles from concentration camps, and arranged to bring food into Majdanek for Polish inmates. The Germans did not, however, allow any leniency when it came to Jewish prisoners:

Her efforts to help Jews were solitary and confined to the margins of her bureaucratic labor. She knew that Jews lived together with Poles at Majdanek and that each compound’s kitchen fed prisoners from the same cauldrons. As she strove to deliver more and more food into the camp, she held onto hope that it would enrich soup fed to all the prisoners, staving off starvation for thousands of Jews alongside Poles.

After World War II, Janina and her husband . . . immigrated to the United States and settled in Chicago, where she taught mathematics at the Illinois Institute of Technology and he taught philosophy at the University of Chicago. She wrote her memoir shortly before her death in 1969.

Here life is the subject of a new book titled The Counterfeit Countess.

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