By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
It is among the most confounding facts of our existence. Humankind is capable of terrible things and wonderful things. Documenting in “No. 4 Street of Our Lady” how Francisca Halamajowa saved the lives of fifteen Jews during the Holocaust, filmmakers Barbara Bird, Judy Maltz and Richie Sherman lyrically and hauntingly make that point.
The divulgences in this tale of heroism, largely based on the diary kept by survivor Moshe Maltz and later published as “Years of Horror, Glimpse of Hope,” won’t soon leave you. Not because it is unique or amazing, though it is on both counts. But because it reaffirms how mind-bogglingly pervasive was this madness that gripped the world.
While through astutely culled primary and secondary sources we soon learn how, in the modest town of Sokal, East Galicia, the families Kindler, Letzter and Maltz came to hide in the hayloft of Mrs. Halamajowa’s pigsty at No. 4 Street of Our Lady, one can’t help but venture a sad extrapolation. Just how many such stories remain untold?
For although the documentarians never lose sight of their particular focus, their objective yet passionate recounting achieves universal worth. And while we become as intimate with the personae as such narration allows, it’s apparent their stories must now assume a vital part in precluding a reoccurrence of the tragedy that befell them.
The scholarliness is nicely tempered. Judy Maltz, the producer and diarist’s granddaughter, adds a personal, haimish touch to the family story she has turned into a feature length testament. The same goes for actual survivors, Fay Malkin, Chaim Maltz and Eli Kindler, who return to their childhood hiding place in Sokal.
Flashing forward and back, mixing interviews with narration from Moshe’s writings and combining it all with a skillful use of still photos and archival footage, matters are ultimately and cathartically tied together at the fateful pilgrimage. But for background, we are first brought up to speed as regards the socio-demographics of Sokal.
A part of Poland between the wars, it was ceded to the Soviet Union just before the Nazi invasion of 1939. When the Germans marched into Sokal in 1941, there were ostensibly three groups: The Poles and the Ukrainians, each of whom felt the region belonged to them, and the Jews. The first two agreed on only one thing.
Hence, as in all too many cases—unlike the sweet but apocryphal tale of the Danish king who defied the Nazi order to make all Jews wear Stars of David by wearing one himself—the population of Sokal welcomed what they saw as an opportunity. Mass executions, random killings and routine shipping of Jews to concentration camps ensued.
Seeing the proverbial handwriting on the wall, Moshe snuck out of the ghetto one night and beseeched Francisca Halamajowa, a Polish Catholic, to hide his brood. She answered with a casual “Why not?” There were 6,000 Jews living in Sokal before the ghettoization and atrocities began. Of the thirty who survived, fifteen owe their lives to her.
Keeping his diary from the time Germany invaded Poland through V.E. Day, May 8, 1945, Moshe’s writings prove invaluable to chronicling the miracle in the hayloft that commenced in late 1942, and lasted for nearly two years. At once harrowing, uplifting and incredible, the close calls indeed prove that truth trumps fiction every time.
Of near Biblical proportions is the episode concerning little Fay Letzter (Malkin), who wouldn’t stop weeping. When the hidden and their benefactor could no longer count on the squealing pigs to drown out the cries that might expose them, David Kindler, their resident M.D., was given the OK to end the tragic dilemma. Ah, but there’s a twist.
Trapdoors, secret attics and regular visits by German soldiers, whom Mrs. Halamajowa often threw parties for so as to appear a Nazi sympathizer, play a role in other hair-raising chapters. Yet it is the day-to-day feeding and related chores necessary to hiding fifteen people in cramped quarters without arousing neighbors’ suspicions that truly astonishes.
Thanks to adroit editing, there are two or three surprises that aren’t divulged until their full, flabbergasting effect can be realized. Suffice it to note, Francisca Halamajowa’s humanitarianism extended beyond saving Jews in her pigsty. The irony of the address where this saintly woman performed her mitzvah is not lost on us.
The house still stands, as does the tree where, Chaim remembers, aunt Chaye Dvora was buried under cloak of night. Mrs. Halamajowa has since been inscribed by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among Nations. And we, deeply moved by the legacy of “No. 4 Street of Our Lady,” seek solace in the hope for a world that never again needs hiding places.
“No. 4 Street of Our Lady,” directed by Barbara Bird, Judy Maltz and Richie Sherman, recently was screened as part of Drew University’s Holocaust Memorial Day observance and will be shown at the Jewish Genealogy Film Festival to be held in Philadelphia, Aug. 2-7.Running time: 95 minutes. For further information, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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