This book is a gem.
The story is based on the true holocaust story of a Polish woman named Franciszka Halamajowa and her daughter Helene. They saved 15 Jews and one German officer (who hated Hitler and did not want to be a Nazi yet was forced into the army at age 18). Helene's brother Damian was shot when smuggling goods to partisan Jews who were hiding in the forest near their home (Sokal, Poland).
The book opens with Helene's voice telling the story. She is a little girl in the beginning of the book, living in Germany with her father, mother and little brother. The father is abusive and one day, before the war, Helene's mother Franciszka, takes both children and flees back to her homeland of Sokal, Poland. The father never tries to reunite with them.
Helene goes to work in a factory where she meets Casimir who helps them once the war begins. He is a good German boy but hates the war and everything about the war. They keep their friendship a secret from people in the village.
After reading several short chapters about Helene and her family and their life in Sokal, the next part of the book is told in the voice of Bronek. Bronek is the older brother of Dawid. Both boys are smart but Bronek is the brave one. They are Jewish and live in Sokal, Poland. His father is a construction worker. He dies in a tragic fall from a construction site and now Bronek is the head of the family. A matchmaker comes with 2 girls and both boys get married. Bronek and his wife have a little boy named Walter. His wife's name is Anelie and Dawid's wife's name is Bryda. The boys live with their old mother who dies of cancer and now it is just the boys, their wives and little Walter. Soon Walter has a baby sister whom they name Biata which means "blessed" in Yiddish. Soon, all the Jews in Sokal must move into the "ghetto" per German orders. The war has come to Poland. Dawid goes on a truck to a factory that the Germans have organized. The truck never returns. The Germans betrayed the Jews and shot all the men on the truck. Now Bryda is a widow and Bronek is sole provider. By chance, he meets Franciszka and eventually she hides him and the rest of his family, including his sister-in-law. Baby Biata is taken by the Germans when they hear her crying, just before they go into hiding. They never see her again.
The next part of the book is told in the voice of Mikolaj. His father is doctor and the head of the Sokal hospital so he thinks he will be safe from the Germans. He is wrong. His mother was born into wealth but is a very generous woman. It is at the market where Felicia meets Franciszka selling her eggs so she arranges that their family cook start buying eggs from Franciszka each week. They form a friendship. One day Dr Wolenski (Mikolaj's father) is summoned to perform surgery on a German officer. If the officer dies, then Dr Wolenski will be shot. The officer survives! But even though the German officer respects the doctor, soon he gets fired from the hospital. They no longer want Jews to work. Shortly after losing his job, Franciszka hides them under her kitchen!
Then the reader hears the story in Vilheim's voice. Vilheim is a German young man who never knew his father and his mother abandoned him to his grandmother (Oma) when he was little because she wanted to continue in her acting career. Vilheim is a gentle soul and doesn't even like to kill animals on the farm for food. When the Germans force him into the army at age 18, he pretends he isn't very good with guns because he does not want to kill another human being. He is against all that Hitler stands for. Soon, he is placed in Sokal Poland where he turns his eyes from seeing Jews trying to escape the ghetto. He befriends Helene through her boyfriend Casimir and eventually he also goes into hiding in Franciszka's attic. He doesn't want to go with the army to Russia so Helene and Franciszka agree to hide him.
None of the people hiding in Franciszka's home ever see each other.
Finally the war ends!
Everyone comes out of hiding and everyone is so surprised that Franciszka and Helene hid that many people!
Vilheim dresses like a Polish person and leads Bronek and his family out of the country. They make their way to the United States where they settle in Texas. Bronek works on a ranch just like he did before the war.
Dr. Wolenski, Felicia and Mikolaj move to Palestine....their dream!
Casimir, Helene and her mother Franciszka move to Switzerland where Casimir finally reveals that he knew all along that they were hiding Jews. Casmir and Helene get married and they have a baby girl.
Bronek sends gifts each year to Franciszka and Dr Wolenski sends money. They are forever grateful for being alive and it's all because of the mother and her daughter.
I loved this book. Those of you who know me well know that I really like reading historical fiction particularly books set in the Civil War or World War II eras. This book is a must read. It is VERY well-written and is the author's first novel.
Franciszka was a strong-willed women yet compassionate and wise. She was a loving mother yet risked her and Helene's lives by helping other people. She was brave.
Before the war, there were 6,000 Jews living in Sokal, Poland. Only 30 survived the war. Half of those 30 Jews were saved because of one woman and her daughter.
You will have to read the book to really understand why I just can't put into words the impact this story left on me. It is powerful. It is real.
The author gives a summary of the real Franciszka in the back of the book and in Israel, there is a special memorial to her and Helene. They are members of the "Righteous among the Nations" which is a group of brave people who were not Jewish but who risked their lives in helping to save Jewish people from execution during the Holocaust.
A favorite quote from the book:
"...Courageous people are afraid like everyone else. They just act despite the fear." (the voice of Vilheim, pg. 153, My Mother's Secret copyright 2013.
and this quote at the very end:
"When we have much to lose, but still choose to do the right thing, we uncover the nobility that is within all of us. To endure what is unbearable and to do it with grace, that is how we know that we have arrived."(page 188, My Mother's Secret, c.2013)
In my opinion, this book is appropriate for ages 14 and older.
On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the highest, I rate this a 10.