The astonishing story of Dr. Josephine Janina Mehlberg—a Jewish mathematician who saved thousands of lives in Nazi-occupied Poland by masquerading as a Polish aristocrat—drawing on Mehlberg’s own unpublished memoir.

World War II and the Holocaust have given rise to many stories of resistance and rescue, but The Counterfeit Countess is unique. It tells the remarkable, unknown story of “Countess Janina Suchodolska,” a Jewish woman who rescued more than 10,000 Poles imprisoned by Poland’s Nazi occupiers.

Mehlberg operated in Lublin, Poland, headquarters of Aktion Reinhard, the SS operation that murdered 1.7 million Jews in occupied Poland. Using the identity papers of a Polish aristocrat, she worked as a welfare official while also serving in the Polish resistance. With guile, cajolery, and steely persistence, the “Countess” persuaded SS officials to release thousands of Poles from the Majdanek concentration camp. She won permission to deliver food and medicine—even decorated Christmas trees—for thousands more of the camp’s prisoners. At the same time, she personally smuggled supplies and messages to resistance fighters imprisoned at Majdanek, where 63,000 Jews were murdered in gas chambers and shooting pits. Incredibly, she eluded detection, and ultimately survived the war and emigrated to the US.

Drawing on the manuscript of Mehlberg’s own unpublished memoir, supplemented with prodigious research, Elizabeth White and Joanna Sliwa, professional historians and Holocaust experts, have uncovered the full story of this remarkable woman. They interweave Mehlberg’s sometimes harrowing personal testimony with broader historical narrative. Like The Light of Days, Schindler’s List, and Irena’s Children, The Counterfeit Countess is an unforgettable account of inspiring courage in the face of unspeakable cruelty.

About the author(s)

Dr. Elizabeth “Barry” White recently retired from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where she served as historian and as Research Director for the USHMM’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide. Prior to working for the USHMM, Barry spent a career at the US Department of Justice working on investigations and prosecutions of Nazi criminals and other human rights violators. She served as deputy director and chief historian of the Office of Special Investigations and as deputy chief and chief historian of the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section. She lives in Falls Church, Virginia.

Dr. Joanna Sliwa is a historian at the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) in New York, where she also administers academic programs. She previously worked at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and at the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. She has taught Holocaust and Jewish history at Kean University and at Rutgers University and has served as a historical consultant and researcher, including for the PBS film In the Name of Their Mothers: The Story of Irena Sendler. Her first book, Jewish Childhood in Kraków: A Microhistory of the Holocaust won the 2020 Ernst Fraenkel Prize awarded by the Wiener Holocaust Library. She lives in Linden, New Jersey.


"The remarkable story of Janina Mehlberg almost didn’t see the light of day. . . . The publication of The Counterfeit Countess is the result of the painstaking work of historical researchers and archivists who know the value of unearthing a narrative like this one, otherwise in danger of being forgotten. The result is a genuine contribution to scholarship that is also a memorable, inspiring tale of individual heroism."

Michael S. Roth

"A story of courage, compassion, and cunning so profound that it must be included with the greatest Holocaust literature. Janina Mehlberg is a heroine for the ages."

Larry Loftis, New York Times bestselling author of The Watchmaker's Daughter

"Holocaust historians White and Sliwa masterfully piece together the previously untold story of a Jewish mathematician who, during the Nazi occupation of Poland, masqueraded as a countess while she helped free and feed thousands of Poles imprisoned at the Majdanek concentration camp." 

"The Coun­ter­feit Count­ess is a grip­ping tale of one woman’s grit and courage in the face of unimag­in­able ter­ror. That it is only avail­able today, more than fifty years after Hen­ry Mehlberg first attempt­ed to get it pub­lished, is a reminder of how many Holo­caust sto­ries remain untold."

Hallel Yadin

More Holocaust