Six thousand Jews lived in the Polish village of Sokal before the start of World War II. When the fighting stopped six years later, only 30 were left alive.
Half of those survivors and their 120 descendants owe their lives to an elderly Polish woman and her daughter, who for two years hid them in a cramped space over a pigsty and in a freshly dug hiding place beneath the kitchen floor — right under the Germans’ noses.
Yet few people would ever know the courageous story of Francisca Halamajowa, and her daughter Helena, were it not for one survivor — Moshe Maltz — who kept a diary of his two-year nightmare while hiding over the pigsty.
“If it weren’t for my grandfather’s diary we would never have found the house because he wrote the address in his diary,” said his granddaughter, Judy Maltz.
It is that diary that became the basis for “No 4 Street of Our Lady,” the 90-minute documentary that tells the story of Francisca Halamajowa — the “Angel,” as Maltz later referred to her — who risked her life to save three Jewish families and even one German soldier who defected in the closing days of the war. She and daughter Helena were named to the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem in 1984.
The film will have its Pittsburgh premiere on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2 p.m. at Adat Shalom synagogue near Fox Chapel. Judy Maltz, its producer, will be on hand for a question-answer session following the screening. The film also will be screened at the Three Rivers Film Festival in November.
Three years in the making, the film has won several awards since its release this year, including the grand prize for best documentary at the Rhode Island International Film Festival, and the CINE Golden Eagle Award.
Lest anyone underestimate the risk Francisca Halamajowa took, keep in mind that until the day she died, she never told anyone what she did. Even her own granddaughters, Grace and Jolanta, who today live in Connecticut, were unaware of much of the story until they returned to Sokal, in what is now Ukraine, with the film crew and saw for themselves.
Judy Maltz, a Penn State senior lecturer in journalism, used the documentary to trace a journey by three surviving Jews and Halamajowa’s granddaughters back to Sokal in 2007.
The sites they visit bring back painful memories — like the ruins of an old brick factory on the outskirts of town where the Germans rounded up Jews, shot them and buried their remains.
When Grace and Jolanta visit their grandmother’s house — at No. 4 Street of Our Lady — they can barely hold back their tears as they see for the first time the cramped space over the pigsty where 12 Jews hid for two years.
The stories the survivors tell are harrowing, including one concerning a decision no parent should ever be forced to make.
The film skillfully uses excerpts from Maltz’s diary, written in Yiddish, as a timeline for the story, but it intersperses vintage and modern photos of Sokal and limited film footage from the war to tell what is truly a personal story of four families whose fates are tied together.
One of the survivors, Eli Kindler, whose father was a Sokal physician, recalls the elder Halamajowa asking her charges whether, if fortunes were reversed and she was the one who needed a hiding place, they would have done the same for her. It’s a stark question, and Kindler honestly wrestles with it.
But the film doesn’t dwell on that question. It prefers to celebrate the courage of Halamajowa and her daughter, as well as the 15 Jews she hid.
“No. 4 Street of Our Lady” is not a political film; its message has more to do with the human spirit. It shows that anyone is capable of great and moral deeds, even at the darkest of hours.
“There’s been so many Holocaust documentaries, but in general they have focused on the victims and the victims’ stories and you really come out with a sense of how bad the world is,” Judy Maltz said. “On the other hand, the feedback I get is, yes, this is a Holocaust documentary, but it’s quite uplifting; you get to see the evil man is capable of but also the humanity man is capable of.”
When over, the film leaves several gripping questions unanswered.
“What she (Halamajowa) did is just as perplexing as the cruelty,” Judy Maltz said. “How did she do this? Why did she do this? We don’t really know. It (the film) leaves a lot of questions open. … It gets people asking if they were in that situation could the have done it — very core questions.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)