My Mother's Secret: Based on a True Holocaust Story

My Mother's Secret: Based on a True Holocaust Story

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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, My Mother's Secret is a testament to the kindness, courage, and generosity of ordinary people who chose to be extraordinary.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781494517922
Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc.
Publication date: 10/06/2015
Edition description: Unabridged CD
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 5.30(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

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. Her debut novel, My Mother's Secret, has been published in several countries around the world.

AudioFile Earphones Award winner Elizabeth Wiley is a seasoned actor, dialect coach, theater professor, and dedicated narrator. She brings over twenty-five years of award-winning acting and voice experience to the studio to create memorable, compelling storytelling.

Read an Excerpt

My Mother's Secret


iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2013 J. L. Witterick
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4759-6257-4

Chapter One

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: "Hela," 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 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.

Chapter Two

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.

Chapter Three

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.

Chapter Four

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.

Chapter Five

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, Hela. 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.

Chapter Six

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's 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.

My mother somehow manages to provide me with the most beautiful dress I have ever seen for the interview. It's made from soft wool, a fabric that only wealthy people can afford. The cream color is professional, yet fresh and classic. The dress is fitted from the waist upward with three-quarter sleeves and a V-neck. At the waist, it flares out to a full skirt, flattering my figure. Around my neck, I wear a simple pearl strand, which is the only jewelry that my mother owns. My shoes are old, but I shine them up with some polish. This dress transforms me and gives me the confidence to compete against girls who I know will be better educated and from far more prestigious families.

Before I leave, my mother says to me, "They would be smart to hire you. You're capable, honest, and hardworking. When you smile, Helena, your face lights up and there is nothing more beautiful, so if it is a man interviewing you, smile." That's my mother—always knowing what to say and providing insightful advice as well.

* * *

Mr. Kowalski, a man in his late twenties, is younger and more handsome than I expect. With him is Ferda, an older, heavyset woman who is also part of the interview. He tests me with conversation in German and asks me to type a short letter, which he dictates rather quickly in Polish.

I know my German is good, and I type faster than anyone I know, so I'm scoring well on both accounts. His final question is, "Helena, if you could choose one thing to possess, what would it be: breathtaking beauty, worldly knowledge, or financial wealth?"

With this question, he's trying to figure out what kind of person I am. It's important to answer correctly, but I say what makes the most sense to me. "I would take the money."

He looks surprised, while Ferda looks openly disgusted at my crass response. This is neither the answer they expected nor the answer they have heard from the other candidates.

He clears his throat a bit. "You would take the money? Why?"

"Well, being beautiful doesn't last. Having worldly knowledge is good, but money feeds hungry stomachs. Also, if I had money, I could study what I want and learn all sorts of things. I could afford books and teachers. Money gives you choices. It gives you freedom and the ability to look after other people. Yes, I'll take the money."

I hear my own voice, and it sounds much more confident than I really am.

Mr. Kowalski now has an amused look on his face. It's not what he expected.

He says, "Thank you very much. We will make our decision shortly and get back to you."

Before I turn to leave, I look directly at him and smile.

I get the job.

CH7[ The apple tree in bloom is full of white flowers that fill the air with beauty and sweetness. When there is a breeze, the fragrance sweeps through my window. On these mornings, it feels like only good things can happen.

I don't know how it started, maybe it was the smile, but Mr. Kowalski clearly prefers my company over Ferda, who is the office manager. When there are project deadlines, he asks me to work late with him. He is always a gentleman, and I don't feel uncomfortable in any way.

One evening, he asks if I would like to have dinner with him since we were both working so late. I reply that I would be very pleased to, which is the truth. Over a simple dinner in the neighborhood restaurant, we take a break from talking about the company business and begin to know each other as two people sharing a meal might do.

He is the son of a wealthy industrialist in Germany who owns the factory. His Polish mother was his father's mistress. Although he admires his father, he resents that he and his mother lived in the shadow of his father's legitimate family.

I know that he is well educated, so his father must have paid for that. He also has the top job at a factory that most men his age would just be working their way up to.

I see that he knows that he is where he is because of his father, and there's a vulnerability to him because of it.

I say to him, "You may have obtained the job because of your father, but you do a good job because of who you are."

I think he appreciated that.

Funny how even the most successful people still need reassurance, wherever it may come from.

I also tell him that not having to share a father doesn't necessarily mean that you have a better relationship. "We haven't heard from my father since we left Germany," I say, carefully omitting that my father is a Nazi sympathizer.

Now that I know Casmir better, I feel safe enough to ask something that has been on my mind since the interview. "Why did you choose me? There were so many others."

"Well, if it was up to Ferda, we wouldn't be sitting here right now," he says with a mischievous smile that makes him look boyish.

"You were brave enough to tell me the truth, and I want someone I can trust. Honesty is refreshing, Helena. Besides, you have that great smile and type like lightning."

He is laughing as he finishes saying this, and I start laughing too.

Was it because he trusted me enough to reveal his darkness, or was it that I had not expected to be in the company of a man so different from the harshness of my own father, that I begin to have feelings yet unknown to me?

Despite our different worlds, we feel closer after that night. ]CH7

CH8[ I find that I now fuss about my appearance before leaving for work. I wake up earlier to make sure that my hair is in the right place. I spend a little money for lipstick, and I ask my mother if she can find any more of those beautiful dresses.

I look forward to work and am excited when I see him. At the office, we address each other politely as Mr. Kowalski and Miss Halamajowa. However, over dinner, which is now at least once a week, we call each other by our first names, Casmir and Helena.

I can't remember when the presents started. It's usually when he returns from a trip to Germany. There are chocolates, books, and scarves—nothing too grand to imply seriousness, but always something to let me know that he thought of me.

Not having much to give in return, I occasionally bring him a home-cooked German dish that my mother has made.

"Helena, how does your mother know my favorite foods? Maybe I should be bringing her presents too," he says playfully. Casmir enjoys those meals immensely.

I am so happy, and it is an odd time to be happy.

The world is in turmoil.

There is news that the Nazis will soon be in Poland, and while we know it, there is not much that we can do.

Everyone is nervous.

(Continues...) ]CH8

Excerpted from My Mother's Secret by J. L. WITTERICK Copyright © 2013 by J. L. Witterick. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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