In honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, Memory Studies screened the remarkable film No. 4, Street of Our Lady in a virtual event. The film tells the story of two Jewish families who were saved and hidden by Franciszka Halamajowa, a woman who risked her life to save them. We were joined after the screening by Judy Maltz, whose grandparents were saved at the house at No. 4, Street of Our Lady, and George Gasyna, who wrote the wonderful blog post below. The film is available for anyone to stream here: https://vimeo.com/80085717.
I am grateful to Dana Rabin for bringing the film to my attention and introducing me to Judy Maltz. Also many thanks to Leslie Davison and Lydia Allen for setting up all technical and physical aspects of the hybrid event.
The video of the discussion is here: No. 4 Street of Our Lady Discussion
Judy Maltz is a senior enterprise reporter for Haaretz, Israel’s oldest and most respected daily newspaper, where she covers a wide variety of issues, with special focus on the Jewish world and Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewry. In addition to her work as a journalist, she has produced and co-directed two award-winning documentary films: No. 4 Street of Our Lady and From the Black You Make Color. She is the recipient of the B’nai Brith World Center Award for excellence in journalism.
George Gasyna, is Associate Professor here at UIUC in Comparative Literature and Slavic. He works on Conrad, Polish Literature, exile, and many other topics. He is the author of Polish, Hybrid, and Otherwise: Exilic Discourse in Joseph Conrad and Witold Gombrowicz. Continuum and co-editor of Joseph Conrad's Polish Soul: Realms of Memory and Self. (Conrad: Eastern and Western Perspectives; Vol. 25), among many other works.
Number 4 Street of our Lady
By George Gasyna
This film is an artifact of extraordinary witness. It is also a remarkably affecting story – though this probably does not need saying for those who have watched it. For memory to have survived for so long, in such a pure form, is remarkable. Doubtless this was aided by the safekeeping of the Maltz wartime diary, though the diary is only one vessel of memorialization, in a sense integrating the variant individual accounts into a larger, smoother narrative.
A chief reason why I find Judy Maltz’s work to be so valuable is that the documentary tenderly narrates the unearthing, safekeeping, and recovery of tragic – but in the end, as she shows, triumphant – memory work; I was particularly stuck by the clarity of memory that emerged in flashbulb form at moments when various members of the Maltz and Kindler families found themselves confronted with the physical backdrop of the hideout in the Halamajowa barn. In this way, 4 Our Lady Street is a true memory place, a lieu de mémoire in Pierre Nora’s sense – for Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians. Principally, though, it is a private place, one in which two families’ (actually, as it turned out, three families’) private struggle for survival was carried out. I am very thankful for this production, for letting memory, which had been cloistered for such a long time, speak at last.
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A few words of context
Unless one is an expert in 20th century history of Poland, one might not be aware that the area where the film is set – northern Galicia, specifically the Lwów or Lviv district – was in effect subjected to three phases of wartime occupation. The invading Soviets, who came to partition Poland together with their erstwhile allies the Nazis at the beginning of the Second World War, assumed control of the district between fall 1939 and 1941. Then the Nazis, who swept east after having broken their non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, incorporated this area into their empire, the Third Reich, between 1941 and 1944. And finally Soviet armies marched west toward Berlin, repelling the Nazis and “liberating” the area – their word – along the way, starting in the summer of 1944.
Each of these phases presented different threats to the populations living there – and Polish Galicia embodied a “zone of mixed populations” almost in the pure Arendtian sense. Wartime occupation lasted 5 years, but the most dangerous moment was the nearly three-year-long Nazi period because this area, per Hitler’s plans, was going to be totally emptied of Jews and have its Polish and Ukrainian populations decimated and enslaved as part of the Lebensraum principle of empire building in the east. One thing that the Germans needed to accomplish in order to execute their plan was for people in that zone of mixed populations (Hannah Arendt’s specific term is “belt”) to stay in place for the moment, not communicate with each other very much, and for division, mutual suspicion, and fear to be the order of the day.
As the film’s narrator points out, the penalty for Poles for aiding Jews, either by sheltering them or by helping in their survival in other ways, was death – summary execution of the individuals being helped and the family of the helpers. Not infrequently, this took the form of immediate killing; scenes of such killings, which took place throughout occupied Poland and other countries of Eastern Europe, had something of the look and feel of extrajudicial murder but were in fact written into Nazi laws for this region, with local variation. It is important to remember that no legal space existed for any protracted process to assess whether help had in fact been proffered, and whether it had in fact been received; and there was no appeals mechanism either. The killings – typically execution by shooting or by hanging, in some cases by beating the condemned people to death, especially children – were often carried out in the open, with gathered members of the public, including any neighborhood children, being forced to watch, as a warning and an object lesson in the legitimacy of Nazi law. This theme – and these scenes – recur in postwar Polish literature and film with a haunting regularity, for instance in Marek Hłasko’s 1965 novel Killing the Second Dog and the short tale “Searching for the Stars,” or in Andrzej Wajda’s trilogy of WWII films made in the mid-50s, most explicitly in A Generation [Pokolenie].
To help add context, one should note that Poland was one of few occupied territories where the Nazis enacted these laws and carried them out with extreme consequence and sadistic glee, with very few exceptions made. Specifically, sheltering Jews was made into a capital offense in Nazi-occupied territories per edicts [“Ogłoszenia”] posted publicly starting in the summer of 1942. The edict cited below as an example, obtained from the United States Holocaust Museum online archive, refers to the populations of Warsaw; it was printed in both German and Polish, and I have reproduced the English translation of the germane sections. The document is distinctly bureaucratic in tone, written in heavy legalese, and further hobbled by cumbersome syntax. Nonetheless, it proclaims the law and lays out the terms and consequences of its transgression; the real question is how one (or: you) might respond to its demands, as a law-abiding subject who has found herself under foreign military occupation?
Death Penalty for Aid to Jews who have left the Jewish residential areas without permission.
I remind you [Poles – my emendation, GG] that according to the Third Decree of the General Governor, concerning the residential restrictions in the General Government of Oct. 15, 1941 (VBL; abbreviation for Verordnungsblatt Generalgouvernement, p. 595), not only Jews who have left their designated residential area [sic!!] will be punished with death, but the same penalty applies to anyone who knowingly provides refuge to such Jews. This includes not only the providing of a night's lodging and food, but also any other aid, such as transporting them in vehicles of any sort, through the purchase of Jewish valuables, etc.
I ask the population of the Warsaw District to immediately report any Jew who resides outside of a Jewish residential area to the nearest police station or gendarmerie post.
The SS- and Police Leader in the Warsaw District
September 5, 1942
This background might help us properly gauge Franciszka Halamajowa’s actions. One could contrast what her family faced with the scenario in the opening scene in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 Inglourious Basterds, for example, where the French farmer who is sheltering a Jewish family under the floorboards of his farmhouse does not necessarily, a priori, fear for his own life; the Nazis are willing to make a deal with him for concrete information. An important consideration here is that Nazis, as a principle, did not deign to make many deals with those that they considered Untermenschen, an inferior race, that is Poles and other Slavs as well as Roma people living in Reich-occupied territories.
In many Western contexts under Nazi rule, moreover, entire networks of helpers would be arrested and would be detained and interrogated, but they were not routinely killed on the spot. A useful contrast here might be with Johannes Kleiman and Miep Gies, who were part of a group that sheltered the Frank family in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. The helpers were released after a month in detention, and their families survived the war. (https://www.annefrank.org/en/anne-frank/go-in-depth/reconstruction-arrest-people-hiding/.)
Further, in the context of Nazi-occupied Poland, while figures like Irena Sandler or Oscar Schindler were irrefutably heroic in their efforts to save lives, in both cases they had institutions that they could rely on, so to speak, that helped enable (and mask) their plans: the armed resistance and the network of Catholic monasteries and convents in the case of Sandler, and a factory and its network of suppliers in Schindler’s instance. Moreover Schindler, nominally at least, was a German Nazi, and used bribery to keep suspicious Nazis – who nonetheless were his compatriots – at bay.
I mention these better-known scenarios not to demean the significance of those struggles in any way, of course, but rather to point out that Franciszka Halamajowa acted absolutely alone, and there would have been no one to help her or her family, or to appeal on her behalf, or for that matter to hide her, had the Nazis found her out.
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As the narrator notes, and Brown University historian Omer Bartov elaborates, there were certain benefits or concrete protections that one could count on specifically for betraying hidden Jews and identifying those Poles who were sheltering them. These included anything from temporary personal protection by Wehrmacht and SS officers, to material goods like meat, sugar, alcohol, or cooking oil, to the very rare offer of collaboration (though per doctrine, the Nazis did not want Poles to be collaborating with them; the Poles were a slave nation not worthy of such considerations).
Thus, a stubborn question haunts this documentary; it is echoed throughout, and you hear it uttered by several different people at those moments when the full story of Halamajowa’s operations comes into view: what would you do if you were in her situation, what would you do if the roles were reversed? Would you have been willing to assume the immense risk, to help out people who had, really, been acquaintances at best, though to be sure they had also been neighbors. The answers, quite tellingly, vary.
After 1945, those Polish citizens who survived in the area of Lwów province, such as members of the Halamajowa family, were cleansed to points west in Poland, and this entire district became annexed into the Soviet Union as the Ukrainian Socialist Republic. It remained within the Soviet Union until 1991, the year of its collapse, and as such it was almost totally inaccessible to interested outsiders, in particular foreigners, and perhaps especially Poles and diasporic Jews who could claim a personal connection to the region. The area is part of independent Ukraine now, and this is why there were Ukrainians, not Poles, living at the house at 4 Street of our Lady at the time of the filming. This goes some way toward explaining the long-time lag before survivors and the former/original owners of the property could go back in order to gain access to the site and search for traces of the past. What they found, when they did return at last, was not only an entire horizon of recollections, but also a palimpsest of oblivion, historical revision, and simple, all-too-human, forgetting. Yet the equally all-too-human urge to restore a memory of a certain act of justice, and fulfill the narrative through the very facticity of their presence at this site, proved more durable and more powerful.
Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Meridian Books, 1958.
Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.” Representations 26 (1989): 7-24.
Tarantino, Quentin. Inglourious Basterds. The Weinstein Company, 2009.
Q: Franciszka provided over 600 nights of lodging for fifteen people, as well as food, news, and whatever help with hygiene and medicine as well as moral support she could muster. That altogether works out to over nine thousand capital violations of Nazi law. As far as you know, was there any point when someone categorically tried to stop her, from within her own family?
Q: Could you say a few words about the reception of the documentary in Poland, and also in Ukraine, if it was screened there?
Q: Are the families still in touch today; has anyone gone back since 2009? Have there been any unexpected connections made, or further discoveries?
Q: In connection with this film, I have also been thinking of the current situation in Ukraine. Russia’s invasion and the resulting refugee crisis both within Ukraine and in neighboring countries, have led to some 8 million displaced people within Ukraine proper, and maybe 5 million more in neighboring countries, including more than three million in Poland.
For scale, this would be equivalent to the State of Illinois, just Illinois, welcoming one million refugees over a month or two, most of whom would not speak much English (or, to think on a national scale, this would be akin to the US, the entire US, bringing in 30 million). Some of them have now been away from their homes for almost a year now. There is no question in all of this, really, just a recognition of a diabolical gyration of historical forces and configurations; I think my point is that those people – both the refugees and those hosting them, especially private individuals – still need our help.