Herb and Jackie Maltz lived in Elizabeth for about 40 years before moving to Israel, where two of their four children live. But it was only about 20 years ago that Herb began talking to anyone about the drama of his early life, and how he survived the Holocaust.
“I didn’t even tell my wife about it,” he told NJ Jewish News last week, in a phone call from Florida where he and Jackie were staying for the winter.
Now, those who have known the family all these years and others will be able to see that story for themselves. The award-winning documentary that depicts that story, No. 4 Street of Our Lady, will be shown at the YM-YWHA of Union County on Sunday, April 11, Yom Hashoa, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The Maltzes said they would have liked to be present for the screening, but they were locked into plane bookings that bring them from Florida to New Jersey the following day. They will be visiting with their daughter Devorah, and her husband, Rabbi Steven Hirschey, one of the directors of the summer camp at the Y.
The film, made by the Maltzes’ daughter, Judy, together with filmmakers Barbara Bird and Richie Sherman, is based on the diary Herb’s father kept while they were in hiding. It also shows the difficult and often deeply emotional return visit that Herb made, together with two fellow survivors, to Sokal, the town in Ukraine where he and his parents were living when the Nazis came.
The film also shows the home — almost unchanged — where they were hidden for 20 months, in a hayloft above a pig sty in the back garden. Totally unbeknownst to them, another group of Jews was hidden in a space carved out under the kitchen. Out of the 6,000 Jews in the town, they were among the 30 who survived the war.
Their savior was a Polish woman, Francisca Halamajowa. She has been recognized as a Righteous Gentile for her extraordinary courage — not only taking in 16 Jews, but also managing to keep them fed and safe for all those months. She also saved a German soldier who defected and narrowly escaped being executed for that act.
Speaking from Florida, Herb said he has very little memory of the hellish days in hiding — he was only six and seven — but he does remember his father writing the diary. “There were only a few tiny spots of light, but he would sit at one and write on whatever scrap of paper he could find,” he said.
After liberation, when the family was in a displaced persons’ camp, his father transcribed the diary, all in Yiddish, into a notebook. They came to the United States in 1949, and years later, after his father’s passing, the notebook came into his care, though — determined to be “more American than the Americans” — Herb kept silent about it.
It was his daughter Judy who was most curious about the family’s wartime experiences. “She always wanted to know about it,” he said. “She would ask her grandparents questions.” His wife remembers how Judy noticed them packing parcels to send to a woman in Ukraine, and asked who she was and why they felt so much for her.
In 1991, Herb attended a meeting of so-called Hidden Children in Manhattan, the first gathering of its kind. After that he began speaking. “I’m in my 70s now,” he told NJJN. “I began thinking then that I should start reporting what happened in my life.” He told his wife, and then he had his father’s diary translated into English, and had it published. The original was donated to the library of the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, where his children went to school.
Judy became a journalist and then a professor of journalism at Penn State University. She told some colleagues about her grandfather’s diary. “They told her, ‘You’ve got a diamond there,’” her father said. And the idea for the film was born. Completed in early 2009, it has won award after award, and rave reviews.
Herb was reluctant to get involved at first, but he was very impressed with the final product. “It’s done beautifully,” he said. “It’s like watching a dream.” He was also sure that his father would have been very pleased that his painstaking record of their nightmare and their survival has been shared so well with the world.