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Fri, Apr

Counterfeit Countess at Holocaust Museum Event

Dr. Elizabeth (Barry) White, along with her co-author Dr. Joanna Sliwa, will speak about their new book, The Counterfeit Countess: The Jewish Woman Who Rescued Thousands of Poles during the Holocaust, at the Holocaust Museum L.A., on Thursday March 14 at 6:30 P.M.  Free tickets are still available HERE.

[Note:  For background, Jeffrey Mausner, featured writer with CityWatch, has conducted this interview with Dr. White.]

Dr. White was a historian at the United States Department of Justice, Criminal Division, Office of Special Investigations (OSI – the Nazi War Crimes prosecution unit) from 1983 to 2010, becoming Chief Historian and then Deputy Director.  I worked with Dr. White when I was a Trial Attorney at the Justice Department from 1979 to 1985.  I got the opportunity to interview Dr. White prior to her presentation at the Holocaust Museum L.A.

Jeff: Hello Barry, it is so nice to speak with you.  I am looking forward to your presentation at the Holocaust Museum on the 14th.  I suppose you are traveling around the country for your book tour now.  What are some of the cities you have been to on your book tour so far?

Dr. White: Boston, Cleveland, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Winston-Salem, Richmond, Mystic, New Orleans, New York, Atlanta and Philadelphia. We’ll be in Portland, Oregon the night before the LA event.

Jeff: Before we talk about the book, I’d like to ask about your background.  I know you have a Ph.D. in history.  I recall that you were completing your Ph.D. when you came to OSI in 1983.  Could you tell us how you came to be a historian and to work at OSI?

Dr. White: My Ph.D., from the University of Virginia, is in Modern European History, specializing in Modern Germany. I had become fascinated with European history in college. Part of what drew me to concentrate on German history was my experience growing up in the segregated South, in Virginia. I had struggled to understand how people I knew, who seemed compassionate and who professed to be patriotic Americans and good Christians, could accept and support a system that was blatantly contrary to the values they claimed to cherish. Germany in the first half of the 20th century provides the ultimate example of this human conundrum.

My dissertation, since published, was on German Influence in the Argentine Army, 1900-1945. Although I didn’t specialize in Nazi Germany, OSI hired me for my knowledge of the German military, my experience conducting research in German archives, and my ability to read old German script – none of which I expected future employers to consider desirable skills!

Jeff: What kinds of cases did you work on at OSI?

Dr. White: At first, I was assigned to investigations of SS officers and of concentration camp guards who we knew were living in the United States. After a few years, I became Chief of Investigative Research, meaning I was responsible for identifying and locating other suspected participants in Nazi crimes who had immigrated to the U.S. after World War II. In 1997, I became Chief Historian, supervising the work of OSI’s staff of historians, who conducted the office’s investigations alongside its attorneys. I became Deputy Director, supervising all of OSI’s non-attorney staff, in 2004.

Jeff: OSI’s mission eventually expanded beyond investigating Nazi persecutors, didn’t it?

Dr. White: Yes, in 2004, Congress charged OSI to investigate all persons who committed human rights violations before coming to the U.S. I participated in developing a multi-agency strategy to deny safe haven to perpetrators of such crimes as genocide, torture, and war crimes. I was also involved in interagency efforts to develop policies for preventing genocide and mass atrocities.

Jeff: When did you leave the Department of Justice and what did you do then?

Dr. White: In 2012, I left DOJ to become the research director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide. Later, before retiring last year, I served at the USHMM as a historical expert on the Holocaust, post-Holocaust genocides, and international justice.

Jeff: Now let’s get to the subject of your book, the Counterfeit Countess.  Based on your background, I’m sure it is historically accurate and well researched.  Who was the counterfeit countess?

Dr. White: She was Dr. Josephine Janina Mehlberg, a Polish Jewish mathematician who survived the Holocaust in German-occupied Poland by posing as the Countess Suchodolska, a Christian aristocrat. She went to work for a Polish relief organization and, since she spoke flawless German, had the job of negotiating with Nazi and SS officials for permission to provide aid to non-Jewish Polish victims of Nazi persecution. She was incredibly persistent in her negotiations, never accepting no as a final answer. And she was incredibly successful: we’ve documented that she won the release of nearly ten thousand Poles from Nazi captivity, including over 4,000 prisoners of Majdanek concentration camp. At Majdanek, she continually pressed the SS to allow her organization to supply ever greater quantities of more supplies – even decorated Christmas trees and Easter eggs – for thousands of prisoners. She brought these deliveries herself inside the camp, a place where 63,000 Jews were murdered in gas chambers and shooting pits. What’s more, she was also an officer in the underground Polish Home Army and used the deliveries as cover to smuggle messages, supplies, and weapons for resistance members imprisoned in the camp – all under the very noses of the SS guards.

Jeff: That’s amazing! How did you come to write about her?

Dr. White: This book came about as a result of my work investigating concentration camp guards for DOJ, which led me to study Majdanek concentration camp, located in German-occupied Lublin, Poland. There was almost no scholarly work written in English about Majdanek, so I delivered a paper on it at the American Historical Association convention in 1989. After the panel, a historian I did not know handed me a carbon copy manuscript. He said it was the memoir of a Jewish woman, Janina Mehlberg, who helped Majdanek prisoners by posing as a Polish Christian aristocrat. She had died in Chicago in 1969, and efforts to publish her memoir had failed. Since I was working on Majdanek, the historian hoped that I could make its story known.

Jeff: So what did you do?

Dr. White: That story so astonished me that I had to question whether it could be true. I couldn’t use the memoir without verifying, and I had no way to do that then, particularly since I don’t know Polish. Since the memoir was being given to the USHMM [U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum], I figured a historian with the right skills would find it and do the work necessary to bring it to light. But that never happened, and the story haunted me, because if it was true, it needed to be made known. In 2017, with the help of the internet, I found a reference that made me think Janina Mehlberg probably was Countess Suchodolska. So I reached out to Joanna Sliwa, whom I only knew by reputation as an expert on the Holocaust in Poland. As soon as she read the memoir, she agreed to partner with me in investigating Janina’s life. Largely thanks to her sleuthing, we have not only corroborated the information in the memoir but have discovered that Janina actually accomplished even more than her memoir claims.

Jeff: Was Dr. Mehlberg able to help any of the Jewish prisoners at Majdanek?

Dr. White: The Germans only permitted her organization, the Polish Main Welfare Council, to aid ethnic Poles. Still, her aim was to provide enough food to Majdanek that it would benefit the non-Polish prisoners as well, particularly the Jews.

Jeff: What Dr. Mehlberg did required incredible bravery! 

Dr. White: She did not expect to survive the German occupation of Poland and so she decided to make whatever was left of her life meaningful by resisting her nation’s enemy and saving as many lives as she could.

Jeff: What would have happened to her if her true identity was discovered by the Germans?

Dr. White: If the Germans had discovered she was Jewish, the Gestapo would have tortured her to learn how she had obtained her false identity and then they would have killed her. If the SS at Majdanek had discovered that she was smuggling supplies to the resistance in the camp, the Gestapo would have tortured her to learn her resistance contacts and then it would have killed her. In fact, although the Germans never learned she was Jewish, the Gestapo did suspect her of resistance activities and set traps for her. One of her colleagues was caught in her stead and was tortured and killed.

Jeff: What happened to Dr. Mehlberg after the war?

Dr. White: She continued to live under a false identity in communist Poland and actually became the deputy director of the national social welfare organization. She escaped Poland in 1950 and eventually settled in Chicago. In the 1960s, she was a tenured full professor of mathematics at the Illinois Institute of Technology – almost unheard of for a woman at that time.

Jeff: Who is the publisher of your book and where is it available?

Dr. White: We were very fortunate that Bob Bender, a Senior Editor at Simon & Schuster, saw the importance and appeal of this story about an amazing heroine no one has ever heard of. The book is available in hard cover and as an e-book and an audio book at all the usual on-line vendors as well as at Costco and many independent book stores. Simon & Schuster has also enabled us to promote the book at many in-person and virtual events. More information about the book, including reviews, media coverage, and upcoming events can be found on the website https://www.counterfeitcountess.com/about

Jeff: Last question. How did you get the nickname Barry?

Dr. White: It’s from my middle name and is what I’ve been called all my life. It wasn’t considered particularly unusual in the South.

Jeff: Thank you for speaking with me.  I look forward to seeing you, and meeting your co-author, Dr. Sliwa, on March 14 at the Holocaust Museum L.A.