Elizabeth B. White and Joanna Sliwa’s new book The Counterfeit Countess tells the astonishing story of Dr. Josephine Janina Mehlberg—a Jewish mathematician who saved thousands of lives in Nazi-occupied Poland by masquerading as a Polish aristocrat—drawing on her own unpublished memoir. Using the identity papers of a Polish aristocrat, Mehlberg worked as a welfare official while also serving in the Polish resistance. With guile, cajolery, and steely persistence, the “Countess” persuaded SS officials to release thousands of Poles from the Majdanek concentration camp. She won permission to deliver food and medicine—even decorated Christmas trees—for thousands more of the camp’s prisoners. At the same time, she personally smuggled supplies and messages to resistance fighters imprisoned at Majdanek. Incredibly, she eluded detection, ultimately survived the war, and emigrated to the US.
White and Sliwa will be in conversation about their book with Andrew Nagorski, author of Saving Freud: The Rescuers Who Brought Him to Freedom.
Dr. Elizabeth “Barry” White recently retired from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where she served as historian and as Research Director for the USHMM’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide. Prior to working for the USHMM, Barry spent a career at the US Department of Justice working on investigations and prosecutions of Nazi criminals and other human rights violators. She served as deputy director and chief historian of the Office of Special Investigations and as deputy chief and chief historian of the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section. She lives in Falls Church, Virginia.
Dr. Joanna Sliwa is a historian at the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) in New York, where she also administers academic programs. She previously worked at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and at the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. She has taught Holocaust and Jewish history at Kean University and at Rutgers University and has served as a historical consultant and researcher, including for the PBS film In the Name of Their Mothers: The Story of Irena Sendler. Her first book, Jewish Childhood in Kraków: A Microhistory of the Holocaust won the 2020 Ernst Fraenkel Prize awarded by the Wiener Holocaust Library. She lives in Linden, New Jersey.
Andrew Nagorski served as Newsweek’s bureau chief in Hong Kong, Moscow, Rome, Bonn, Warsaw, and Berlin. He is the author of seven previous critically acclaimed books, including Hitlerland and The Nazi Hunters. He has also written for countless publications.
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