Franciszka and her daughter, Helena, are simple, ordinary people...until 1939, when the Nazis invade their homeland. Providing shelter to Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland is a death sentence, but Franciszka and Helena do exactly that. In their tiny home in Sokal, they hide a Jewish family in a loft above their pigsty, a Jewish doctor with his wife and son in a makeshift cellar under the kitchen, and a defecting German soldier in the attic—each party completely unknown to the others. For everyone to survive, Franciszka will have to outsmart her neighbors and the German commander.
Told simply and succinctly from four different perspectives—all under one roof—My Mother’s Secret is a testament to the kindness, courage, and generosity of ordinary people who chose to be extraordinary.
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|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
When you’re a child, you think that your parents are the same as everyone else’s and that what happens in your house happens in other people’s homes too. You have no way of knowing any differently.
And so, I think that everyone is afraid of their father. I think that men marry to have someone cook and clean for them. I don’t know that some men actually love their wives and their children.
My brother, Damian, and I grow up with two very different people.
My father is precise, hard, and linear, while my mother is imaginative, loving, and warm.
Both are strong.
My father is Ukrainian and my mother is Polish, but we moved to Germany, where the opportunities are better than in Poland.
My father is a machinist, and that suits him well because it requires precision and measurement—both skills he possesses in abundance.
My mother works as a cook for a wealthy German family, and we love that she often brings leftovers home for us. She brings food that we never would have tasted otherwise. Not much usually, but there are sometimes small pieces of expensive meats like pork chops and, if we’re lucky, fruits and nuts, which are luxuries for most people.
When there are leftovers, my mother puts them all on a plate for us to share. Even though we would have already eaten the dinner cooked ahead for us in the morning, it’s a special treat that we all look forward to. Typically, my father gorges himself, reaching for more even while he’s still chewing with his mouth partly open.
Once as I am about to pick up a slice of apple from the plate, my father slaps my hand. It is something that he wants.
My mother sees this and shakes her head. The next week she keeps a whole apple in her pocket and only brings it out after my father starts the loud, snorting sound that is his snore when asleep.
She cuts the apple in half and gives it to my brother and me.
I don’t know why, but I remember what happens next more than I remember how my father treats me. I can hear the words from my brother as if he has just said them: “Lena,” he says, using his nickname for me, “you know I ate so much for dinner that I really don’t want anything else. Why don’t you have my half too?”
I shake my head. “You can eat this, Damian.” But he refuses and makes me take it.
It makes the apple even sweeter than it already is.
My father, not having seen a trace of an apple for some time, asks, “Why aren’t you bringing home any apples, Franciszka?”
My mother shrugs her shoulders and says, “I work there; I don’t shop there. I can only bring home what they give me.”
My brother and I look at each other and then down because, if we didn’t, he would have seen our smiles.
• • •
TWO STRONG PEOPLE living together is not easy to begin with, but two strong people with opposing political views—that’s virtually impossible.
My father is a Nazi sympathizer, and my mother is horrified by it.
“Hitler is the answer to the problems of the German people,” my father says.
Just a few years ago no one had even heard of Hitler, but now it seems like his name is everywhere. His wave of popularity is swelling. People are poor and unemployment is high. Hitler promises better times. He tells the German people that they are superior.
“Germany will be a great power again if Hitler is the leader,” my father says. His fellow workers at the machine shop are all going to vote for him.
“If you’re German and someone tells you that you’re born superior, that would sound pretty good,” my mother says.
“Even better if the bad times are not your fault but caused by the Jewish people. It’s so much easier than trying to explain it logically.”
My mother doesn’t pass judgment on groups of people. She believes in the individual.
“Not all Germans are good or bad, and the same with Jews,” she says.
She’s outspoken and says what she believes.
They have shouting matches over this, and while my brother and I stay quiet, we don’t like what Hitler is promising. We heard Hitler speak once and saw the hypnotic power that he had over people.
He has that effect on our father.
• • •
MY FATHER DOESN’T ARGUE WITH FACTS. He makes his points with attacks on the other person.
He doesn’t fight fair.
“What do you know about politics?” he says to my mother. “Cooking makes you smart, does it?”
“It doesn’t make you blind” is what she says.
I think to myself, I will never marry anyone like my father.
I don’t know if my mother ever loved my father.
Maybe love isn’t something that people value when it’s hard just to get by.
Damian and I are constantly worried that our father, so quick to anger, will strike her in one of their arguments.
Being slight and about half his size, my mother would be seriously injured.
She never backs down in their arguments, so it is my brother and I who fear.
We want to grow up so desperately.
As predicted by my father, Hitler becomes chancellor on January 30, 1933.
Seven months later, a law is introduced to ban the formation of parties.
Now . . . there is no stopping the Nazi machine.
It may have been as subtle as the sight of a small robin sitting on our windowsill in the early days of spring that makes my mother think, This simple bird has the freedom to fly anywhere, and yet here we stay.
Or maybe it’s just what is practical. Leave when you have enough money set aside.
Regardless, one uneventful day, she tells my father that she has decided to move back to Poland. This is the same as saying she is leaving him because he has on many occasions said that he would never return to a country he felt was backward compared to Germany.
At this point, my brother is eighteen and I am two years younger, so we can make our own decision in terms of whom we will live with.
In reality, there’s no decision to make.
We respect that she stands up to my father, who promises a secure lifestyle for obedience.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s because we never felt close to our father that we embraced the values of our mother. It’s hard to say how we become the people we do. My mother believes that it comes from our choices. She says, “If you choose to do the right thing, it’s a conscious decision at first. Then it becomes second nature. You don’t have to think about what is right because doing the right thing becomes who you are, like a reflex. Your actions with time become your character.”
“If you leave, don’t come back,” are my father’s last words to us.
We don’t take much when we leave.
Fortunately, my mother has been smart enough to keep some of her earnings hidden from my father.
With her savings, my mother buys a small house with some land for raising chickens and growing vegetables in her hometown of Sokal, Poland.
Sokal is located a day’s wagon ride from Warsaw. There’s a river with majestic willow trees lining the banks that runs through town. In the summer, it has a carefree feel to it.
The people living here form three distinct communities: Ukrainian, Polish, and Jewish.
The Ukrainians don’t trust the Poles, the Poles don’t trust the Ukrainians, and they both don’t trust the Jews. There exists a certain friction that has been dulled by time but is never gone.
A few wealthy families live in Sokal, but most of the people are of modest means. Just about everyone works hard for what they have.
The more expensive homes in town are made from bricks. However, the majority of people live in homes made from wooden boards that are considerably cheaper. Fireplaces are used to keep warm in the winter, when it can be mercilessly cold. It’s not unusual for people to wear almost as much to keep warm indoors as outdoors in the coldest months.
For water, people go to a well that’s in their neighborhood. Farmers sell their produce and meats in the market, where most people shop. Only those with money shop in the stores, which carry imported goods from Germany and other places.
At the market, my mother sells eggs from our chickens, and garden vegetables that she grows in season. My brother works at an oil refinery a few towns away, so we only see him on his days off. He brings supplies and takes care of us more than my father ever did.
When my brother comes to visit, the first thing he does is pick me up and whirl me around as if I were a small child. I am dizzy with this but love the feeling. Over six feet in height, he towers above me. I have to look up at him because I am barely taller than my five-foot mother.
“I don’t know how two plain-looking people like your father and I could have produced such attractive children,” my mother says.
It seems we did inherit the best features from both our parents.
I have my father’s brown eyes and chestnut hair, which flows with a natural wave hinting at its origin from his tight curls. My brother has my mother’s fair skin and light hair, and I am envious of their gray, sparkling eyes.
Damian always brings me an apple when he comes to visit.
It’s love and sacrifice disguised as a piece of fruit.
He brings my mother chewing tobacco, which she adores.
On my seventeenth birthday, Damian surprises me with an apple tree. “Now you can have apples whenever you like, Lena. You don’t have to wait for me anymore,” he says. “Show me where you want it planted.”
I choose a spot just outside my window. It will be the first thing I see when I wake up.
I can’t wait until I can earn money too. I want to surprise him with a present, and I already have something in mind.
There is a beautiful brown leather jacket in a store on the way to the market, which would be perfect for Damian.
I keep thinking to myself, Please, please don’t let anyone else buy it before I can get the money.
In the local newspaper, there’s an ad for a secretarial position, assisting the general manager of a garment factory in town. I confide to my mother that even though my chances are slim, I want to try. “There are going to be so many girls competing for this job,” I say.
She says to me, “Do you remember when you first learned how to type? You wanted to be faster than anyone else in your class, but we didn’t have a typewriter so you drew the keyboard on a piece of paper and practiced as if you were really typing. You always wanted to be the best, Helena, and you practiced day and night. Your teacher told me that she never had a student who could type eighty words a minute. You were the top in your class then, so why shouldn’t you be selected for this job now? Besides, how many girls speak German as beautifully as you?”
I already knew everything she was telling me, but there are times when it feels good to hear what you already know.
What People are Saying About This
“A moving and captivating portrait.”
—Amir R. Gissin, Consulate General of Israel
“A reflection of our own era, a reminder of how far wrong we can be led…an important book.”—Joseph Kertes, author of Gratitude, winner of the Canadian Jewish Book Award
“The woman at the heart of this novel will haunt you after you read about her fearless compassion, her defiance of the odds of survival.”—Anna Porter, award-winning author of Kasztner’s Train
Reading Group Guide
Based on a true story, My Mother's Secret is a profound, captivating, and ultimately uplifting tale intertwining the lives of two Jewish families in hiding from the Nazis, a fleeing German soldier, and the clever and "righteous" mother and daughter who teamed up to save them.
Franciszka and her daughter, Helena, are unlikely heroines. They are simple people who mind their own business and don't stand out from the crowd. Until 1939, when crisis strikes. The Nazis have invaded Poland and they are starting to persecute the Jews. Providing shelter to a Jew has become a death sentence. And yet, Franciszka and Helena decide to do just that. In their tiny, two-bedroom home in Sokal, Poland, they cleverly hide one Jewish family of two brothers and their wives in their pigsty out back, another in a makeshift cellar under the kitchen floorboards, and a defecting German soldier in the atticeach group completely unbeknownst to the others. For everyone to survive, Franciszka will have to outsmart her neighbors and the German commanders standing guard right outside her yard.
Told simply and succinctly from four different perspectives, My Mother's Secret is a reminder that you don't have to be extraordinary to make a difference. You can become extraordinary by making a difference.
This book was inspired by the true story of Franciszka Halamajowa, who, with her daughter, saved the lives of fifteen Jews in Poland during the Second World War. She also hid a young German soldier in her attic at the same time. Before the war, there were six thousand Jews in Sokal, Poland. Only thirty survived the war and half of those did so because of Franciszka.
ABOUT J.L. WITTERICK
Originally from Taiwan, J.L. Witterick has been living in Canada since her family's arrival in 1968. She attended the University of Western Ontario, graduating from the Richard Ivey School of Business. My Mother's Secret is her debut novel. It is a bestseller in Canada and has been published in several countries around the world. Witterick lives in Toronto with her husband and son.