Nacha is living a normal life in Old Town, Warsaw, when the Nazis invade Poland. After months of heavy shelling, her family believes things can't possibly get any worse. Then the city falls, and she and her family find themselves faced with a level of antisemitism they've never experienced before. They're locked into a ghetto, and she fears they'll never see freedom again. When the Nazis begin rounding up Jews, Janek, a Polish Catholic teenager, doesn’t let the warnings of executions for those caught helping Jewish people stop him. With his neighbors now living in the ghetto, he resolves to take them food and supplies. It isn’t long before he finds love in the dark shadows of the ghetto walls, and his own commitment to save his neighbors grows.
Release date: July 14, 2022
Publisher: Black Lab Press
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Behind the book
I first read about Janek Kostanski in an old newspaper article, listed in the Sydney Morning Herald, titled “Heroic saviour of the Warsaw ghetto”. I’m not sure how I stumbled across it, but as I read it, tears fell down my cheeks. It was clear to me that Janek, and his family, had lived a story that needed to be told, and I was astounded that no one had done so yet.
Due to the death of all of the characters in this tale by the time I learned of it, I have relied in places on constructing scenes and dialogue based solely on my imagination. Some interactions are informed by my research but most have only a few lines of description available in the collective texts that can be found in English language resources.
In certain parts of the story I have also compressed characters. For example, Josef Albert Meisinger, the Butcher of Warsaw, who I’ve commingled with the story of Oskar Dirlewanger. Dirlewanger’s role and personality was not much different to Meisinger’s.
I have used poetic licence surrounding such characters and where they might’ve been, or what they might’ve done in various situations for the sake of narrative cohesion. I have also dramatised events that primary sources outlined with much more compacted descriptions.
As a result, the story you have read is not a narrative nonfiction piece, but an historical fiction novel that skews as closely to what has been described by the people involved, or recorded in historical depictions, as I could manage to make it.
The essentials of this storyline are true. The dramatisation is from my imagination. Janek Kostanski was at least as heroic as my descriptions have allowed him to be. It is certain there are many details missing as these are the highlights as described by him in interviews and letters.
His mother is as heroic as Janek, perhaps more so when you consider that she went against every instinct to protect her own children, by continually helping another family in the face of egregious danger. However, Włodzisława (who I have called Waltrina for ease of pronunciation), unfortunately did not write letters or give interviews, that I could find. And so I have depicted her through Janek’s eyes.
The truth includes the fact that Janek did smuggle supplies and food to his Jewish family whose home was separated from his by a wall through their courtyard. He did take Nacha to the movies, risking both their lives for a bit of fun in a dark world. He was arrested by the Gestapo with fifty Jewish boys who were all killed, while he was beaten and had his teeth knocked out before being rescued by his mother.
Also, Jadzia was interred in an extermination camp and only escaped death due to her mother’s bargaining skills. And Antoni (Ajzyk), Nathan and Nacha were all bound for Treblinka on a train when they managed to escape through the window and back to Aunt Irka’s. These facts, and many others related in the story, are all true and are more dramatic than anything an imagination could conjure.
The heinous crimes listed in this book, done by the Nazi invaders, are also unfortunately true, though dramatised for the purposes of the narrative.
I hope you enjoyed reading Janek’s story and that he brings you hope, as he did me, that there are good people in the world, willing to risk their lives to save another.