At a reception last month in New York, I introduced myself to the Polish film director Agnieszka Holland. "Ah," she said, extending her hand. "I am sorry that I did not include your mother in the movie." She was referring to "In Darkness," a nominee for best foreign language film at this year's Academy Awards. We'd had friendly correspondence over the last two years. So why did she feel the need to apologize before another word was spoken?
Because her film is a fictionalized interpretation of the central episode in my mother's life. On July 27, 1944, my mother emerged with nine other Jews from a sewer manhole in the Polish city of Lvov (present-day Lviv, Ukraine) after they had hidden from the Nazis, below ground, for 14 months. A story of mine, published in the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine onMother's Day 1983 — five months after my mother's death — was the first full English-language account of this episode; the screenplay for "In Darkness" was based on a 1990 book by Robert Marshall that used the article as a source.
"Believe me, I know the importance of your mother's achievements, and I deeply value them," Holland emailed me before filming began. "The reason she's not in the script is that we had to compress and partly fictionalize the events and characters.... We didn't want to add some fictional story line to her, knowing how important a Holocaust figure she became after the war because of her own activity and your writings."
Halina Wind, the daughter of a poor Hasidic watchmaker in the Carpathians, was just 22 on the sunny summer day the Russian army liberated Lvov, and already she had been witness to the worst and the best in humanity. Her parents and a brother were among the millions murdered, and she had narrowly escaped the same fate before fleeing into the sewers. She survived because three Polish sewer workers — Leopold Socha, Stefan Wroblewski and Jerzy Kowalow — risked their lives and their families' lives to shelter and feed her group.
"Your mother kept pleading that she is a young girl and that she wants to and must live," Wroblewski recalled in a long letter to me in 1983 (in Holland's film he is killed, but in reality he lived to be 74). Indeed, my mother's role in history is significant not so much for what she did during those 14 subterranean months but for how the experience guided her life after the movie's story ends.
Throughout the months in the filthy underground hide-out, Halina remained focused on a place she had never seen, the New York address 3080 Broadway, where her older brother, Leon, was studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The prospect of reuniting with him gave her something to live for, and when she arrived into the waiting arms of Rabbi Wind and his wife and son at La Guardia Airport on Jan. 3, 1947, it marked the beginning of a new life dedicated to honoring both her Jewish heritage and her Catholic rescuers.
An American audience first heard a survivor speak of the Lvov sewer episode on Oct. 25, 1949, when Halina, then a 27-year-old senior in the Jewish Theological Seminary's teachers institute, told her story at a national conference in New York. Charming, cultured and beautiful, she made such an impact that the seminary sent her on a fundraising tour of 36 appearances in seven states. After her presentation in Roxbury, Mass., the Boston Sunday Globe ran a front-page story: "Woman Lives to Tell of 14 Months in Sewer." One woman who heard her in New Jersey introduced her to a cousin who had survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald and who was working as an engineer in Boston. Halina married George Preston, the former Grisza Priszkulnik. They moved to Wilmington, Del., where I was born in 1955 and my sister six years later.
During three decades as a teacher at Jewish schools and as a public speaker, my mother inspired students and audiences of all faiths with the story of the Lvov sewer workers who saved her, establishing herself as an eloquent representative of the victims and survivors of the Nazis. Her message was uplifting, about how goodness transcends religion, ethnicity and national boundaries, continuing from one generation to the next, from one culture to another.
"I had a mission," my mother told an oral history interviewer in 1978. "I wasn't just saving my life.... And when you have a purpose and when you have a cause, then you are able to endure everything.... I was living for my parents. I was living for my brother. I was living for my yet-unborn children. I was living for the past, and I was living for the future."
My mother not only spoke about the sewer workers; she maintained contact with the Socha and Wroblewski families, and would have done the same with Kowalow had he not disappeared after the war. As a boy I watched her meticulously prepare parcels of clothing for the two families living in Soviet-occupied Poland. Her boundless gratitude impelled her to travel to Jerusalem in 1977 to provide the sole testimony that led to Socha and Wroblewski and their wives being named "Righteous Among the Nations," enabling their families to receive monthly stipends. And in 1981, a year before her death, my mother dedicated a Garden of the Righteous Gentiles in Wilmington, with two of its trees planted in memory of Socha and Wroblewski, the first memorial in the United States to Christians who saved Jews.
"In Darkness," which I saw at a screening the other day, focuses on the gradual transformation in Socha — whose heroism begins as a financial transaction. It offers a glimpse into the rat-infested netherworld my mother survived. But Halina insisted on truth; she would have been incredulous over invented characters having sex in the sewer for the sake of dramatic tension, or seeing a man who was instrumental in her rescue reduced to a caricature of a pious Jew.
As last month's reception was ending and Holland and I embraced, it was in memory not just of my mother but of three blue-collar Poles and their families, whose bravery probably can never be suitably portrayed. I was thinking of the day exactly three years before my mother died, when she stood in front of Delaware's dignitaries and dedicated a Holocaust monument in downtown Wilmington. "We shall continue to erect Holocaust memorials of stone and iron, until we finish building the ultimate memorial," my mother vowed.
"A just and peaceful world."
David Lee Preston is an assistant city editor at the Philadelphia Daily News.