“No. 4 Street of Our Lady”

Penn State prof makes film of Polish Catholic woman  who sheltered her Jewish relatives
November 12, 2009 12:00 am

In “No. 4 Street of Our Lady,” survivor Fay  Malkin embraces daughter Debbie Schonberger-Pierce in the hayloft where she  spent almost two years as a child.
By Barbara Vancheri / Pittsburgh  Post-Gazette

If the story were pitched in Hollywood over iced caramel macchiatos, no one  would buy it. After all, it’s much too improbable or outright impossible.

Who would believe a movie about a Polish Catholic woman who shelters 15 Jews  during the Holocaust (a dozen in a pigsty hayloft, three in a makeshift cellar)  while masquerading as a Nazi sympathizer and living at the address of No. 4  Street of Our Lady?

Only the remarkable people who lived it and their survivors, including Judy  Maltz, 47, a senior lecturer in journalism at Penn State University. She and two  colleagues, Barbara Bird and Richie Sherman, made the documentary “No. 4 Street  of Our Lady” that will play Saturday and Sunday as part of the Three Rivers Film  Festival.

Co-directors will attend an 8 p.m. Saturday screening of the movie at the  Harris Theater, Downtown, and take questions. Movie will repeat at 2 p.m. Sunday  at Melwood Screening Room, Oakland.

Maltz’s late grandfather, Moshe Maltz, kept a diary about the nearly two  years in the hayloft, and her father, now a retired pharmacist, lived it as a  boy.

It was a time when a sneeze, snore, cough, child’s cry, conversation in a  normal voice or the sight of a body being smuggled out at night and buried under  an apple tree (a 16th person died) would have meant detection by nearby  neighbors and certain extermination.

Francisca Halamajowa, owner of the tiny home and detached pigsty, always  claimed stray noises came from the squealing animals — who also produced an  inordinate amount of waste she carted away. As for all that extra water from the  well? She faked a condition that required she bathe more often.

Halamajowa, in charitable cahoots with daughter Helena, constructed an  elaborate, intricate web of life-saving lies. On the eve of World War II, more  than 6,000 Jews lived in tiny Sokal in Eastern Poland (now Ukraine). By the end  of the war, 30 remained, half harbored by the mother and daughter.

Traveling to Sokal with three of the four living survivors, Maltz says,  “Going there made it so obvious to me about how close I am to not being here at  all.”

She had first heard the account of wartime survival as a child living next  door to her grandparents in Newark, N.J., and says it was like listening to a  fairy tale. “It’s kind of unreal, imagining people living in a pigsty,” and she  later realized she wasn’t sensitive to emotionally devastating parts of the  story.

Her grandfather became a kosher butcher and in his final years, while living  with Judy’s parents, spent days sitting in his chair with his half-century-old  entries. When she asked what he was doing, he would say, “Just reading a little  bit of history.”

It was that history that came to mind when ex-reporter Maltz expressed an  interest in filmmaking to colleague Bird, who suggested she start with a  five-minute short.

Maltz eventually countered with, “What are you doing next summer? You want to  come with me to Eastern Europe and Israel? I’ve got an idea for a film, but it’s  probably going to have to be longer than five minutes.”

Bird was gung-ho and they brought cinematographer Sherman into the project,  and all three share co-directing credit.

They assembled a group that included three survivors and Francisca’s adult  granddaughters plus Maltz’s 15-year-old son, the oldest of her four children.  “Dad, for years, swore he never wanted to step foot back in that part of the  world again,” Maltz said, but he did.

No one knew if the street or house existed (and could be located) and if  anyone would remember the residents or subterfuge, if they knew about it.

The filmmakers cobbled together $100,000 in donations and, two weeks before  traveling, learned the house still stood. That is how three survivors came to  return to the tiny, almost frozen-in-time residence with a red door, pigsty in  back and iron gate in front.

“The three survivors initially were very calm and cool about it. ‘Well, you  know we were kids, we don’t really have terrible memories, this will be  interesting, we’re kind of curious,’ ” the older travelers insisted. But they  burst into tears immediately or felt the shock waves later in their eight-day  visit.

The current residents of the property, a gracious family of six led by a bus driver and stay-at-home mom, welcomed the outsiders with heaping amounts of vodka, herring, sardines, salad and other goodies. “They let us come in and out of the house for eight days,” and showed none of the suspicion that greets some returning Jews.

A bonus for the filmmakers was finding two locals who remembered Francisca;  one said everyone knew what was going on and kept quiet, the other suggested  nobody knew.

“No. 4 Street of Our Lady,” which had its first public screening at Penn  State in March and has found a distributor, has been making the rounds of  festivals, universities, synagogues and other public gatherings since.

Maltz, an avid consumer of books and movies about the Holocaust, understands  why some people shun such projects. They lived it after all, but most Jewish  people who have seen “No. 4 Street” say it’s different.

“It’s more uplifting at the end,” they tell Maltz. “Also, I think it’s not so  much about victimhood; they don’t want to hear about victims and atrocities.  It’s not very graphic. I think it’s more about the human spirit — of both the  rescuer and the survivors.” And their storytellers.

Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara  Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. First Published  November 12, 2009 12:00 am

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