The Coun­ter­feit Count­ess: The Jew­ish Woman Who Res­cued Thou­sands of Poles Dur­ing the Holocaust

  • Review
By – January 22, 2024

The Coun­ter­feit Count­ess is a biog­ra­phy of Dr. Josephine Jan­i­na Mehlberg, a Jew­ish math­e­mati­cian who mas­quer­ad­ed as a Pol­ish noble­woman dur­ing the Holo­caust and saved thou­sands of Poles impris­oned at Maj­danek, a bru­tal con­cen­tra­tion camp. 

Mehlberg was born Pepi Spin­ner in 1905 in the Gali­cian town of Żurawno (now Zhu­ravno). She went on to study in Lwów with Europe’s lead­ing math­e­mati­cians, ulti­mate­ly obtain­ing a doc­tor­ate in phi­los­o­phy and work­ing as a math­e­mati­cian. In 1933, she mar­ried Hen­ry Mehlberg. Six years lat­er, after Lwów was tak­en by the Nazis, the cou­ple escaped to Lublin, where Mehlberg assumed the iden­ti­ty of Count­ess Jan­i­na Stanisława Bed­nars­ka Suchodolska. 

The book details how Mehlberg took on the role of a Pol­ish wel­fare offi­cial and, through a mix of savvy and sheer will, deliv­ered ever-increas­ing amounts of food to Maj­danek pris­on­ers. She con­sis­tent­ly scaled up her oper­a­tions, using food trans­ports as a cov­er to smug­gle med­i­cine, notes, and oth­er neces­si­ties to the camp. She even man­aged to nego­ti­ate the release of over three thou­sand Catholic Poles who were incar­cer­at­ed as polit­i­cal prisoners.

Mehlberg’s hus­band tried to get her mem­oir pub­lished in 1969, to no avail. Bar­ry White, a his­to­ri­an who first received a copy of the mem­oir in 1989, returned to Mehlberg’s sto­ry in 2017. At that point, White also sent the mem­oir to Joan­na Sli­wa, an expert on the Holo­caust in Poland. Sli­wa part­nered with White to bring Mehlberg’s sto­ry to light. They decid­ed to pub­lish the book not as an anno­tat­ed mem­oir, but as a biog­ra­phy, because on its own, the mem­oir can­not con­vey to most of today’s read­ers a full appre­ci­a­tion of how remark­able Janina’s sto­ry is.” Rich in detail, the book draws from the mem­oir as well as oth­er archival sources. It is both a biog­ra­phy of an indi­vid­ual woman and an account of life in Lublin’s Pol­ish underground.

As the sto­ry unfolds, read­ers learn about the stead­fast moral cal­cu­la­tions that moti­vat­ed Mehlberg to take a num­ber of unfath­omable risks. After a close call with a Ger­man offi­cial on the train to Lublin, Mehlberg resigned her­self to what seemed like an inevitable death. From there, she sought to make mean­ing out of what­ev­er time she had left. She devised a sim­ple cal­cu­la­tion: many lives are more impor­tant than one. This phi­los­o­phy ground­ed her dur­ing the years she spent mak­ing deliv­er­ies to Majdanek.

The Coun­ter­feit Count­ess is a grip­ping tale of one woman’s grit and courage in the face of unimag­in­able ter­ror. That it is only avail­able today, more than fifty years after Hen­ry Mehlberg first attempt­ed to get it pub­lished, is a reminder of how many Holo­caust sto­ries remain untold.

Discussion Questions