Free screening of documentary about Holocaust heroine set March 1

A special screening of a new documentary film, produced and directed by three Penn State faculty members, will be conducted at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 1, at the historic State Theatre in downtown State College.

The film, "No. 4 Street of Our Lady," tells the remarkable, yet little-known, story of Francisca Halamajowa, a Polish-Catholic woman who rescued 16 of her Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust by cleverly passing herself off as a Nazi sympathizer.

Attending the event will be guests from around the world, including four survivors who as children were saved by Halamajowa as well as her grandchildren.

The screening will be followed by a discussion with the filmmakers and survivors. Free tickets are available at the State Theatre box office but must be picked up in advance.

On the eve of World War II, more than 6,000 Jews lived in Sokal, a small town in Eastern Poland, now part of Ukraine. By the end of the war, only about 30 had survived, half of them rescued by Halamajowa. For close to two years, she hid her Jewish neighbors in her tiny home and cooked and cared for them, right under the noses of hostile neighbors and German troops camped on her property. Two families were hidden in the hayloft of her pigsty and one family in a hole dug under her kitchen floor. In the final months of the war, she also provided shelter to a German soldier who had defected -- an act that nearly led to her execution.

Even among the small minority of Poles who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, Halamajowa's is by all accounts an unusual story in light of the number of people she rescued and the amount of time she fed and cared for them.

Collaborating on "No. 4 Street of Our Lady" are three members of the faculty of the College of Communications: Barbara Bird, an associate professor in the Department of Film-Video and Media Studies; Richie Sherman, an assistant professor in the Department of Film-Video and Media Studies; and Judy Maltz, a senior lecturer in the Department of Journalism.

The release of the feature-length documentary culminates three years of production work that has taken the faculty members to Israel, Ukraine and numerous locations around the United States, where they have gathered material, conducted interviews and captured dramatic moments on camera.

What motivated Francisca Halamajowa to reach out to her Jewish neighbors at the risk of her own life? What did the townspeople know or not know about what was going on in her home? What role did her children play in this rescue operation? What did her descendants, who grew up in Communist Poland, know about her past, and how did they feel about her actions? Those were some of the questions that began to intrigue the filmmakers, as they embarked on this project.

The film draws on excerpts from a diary kept by one of the survivors, Moshe Maltz, whose granddaughter is one of the filmmakers. It also incorporates testimonies from other Jews saved by Halamajowa, her descendants and former neighbors, as they reconnect on a trip back to Sokal. Powerful location shots add another rich dimension to the story, providing the backdrop as the drama unfolds.

Bird said she was initially attracted to the project after reading Maltz's diary. "I was completely drawn in by his account of this amazing rescue story," she said. "Another powerful element for me was the willingness of the survivors to face their difficult and tragic past, after 60 some years of silence."

For Sherman, the key challenge was finding the right visuals to bring the past alive. "What I tried to do was draw on a palette ranging from high-definition video images to hand-processed black-and-white film in order to strike the right tone in this piece," he said.

Maltz, the granddaughter of the diarist, said that beyond her personal connection to the story, as a journalist, "what was really exciting for me in this whole process was discovering new things about a story I thought I already knew everything about. The interviews we did and the trip we took to Sokal led us to new bits of information that make the story that much richer."

"No. 4 Street of Our Lady" creates a dialogue of varying points of view, as Moshe Maltz's written recollections and responses to events are woven together with the present-day oral memories of the remaining living survivors, as well as the handed-down stories of the Halamajowa family and testimonies of the rescuers's former Ukrainian neighbors.

The film also makes use of old videotape, home movies, archival footage and documents found in the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. Interviews with Professor Omer Bartov of Brown University, an internationally recognized scholar on Jewish life in Galicia, Amos Goldberg, an expert on Holocaust diaries, and Irena Steinfeldt, head of The Righteous Among Nations Department at Yad Vashem,  provide historical and geographical context.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010