“No. 4 Street of Our Lady”
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.