It's a story even Hollywood might deem too implausible.
For 20 months, at the height of the Second World War, a Roman Catholic mother and daughter sheltered 15 Jews in the Polish border town of Sokal – half the number of local Jews that survived the war, out of an original Jewish population of about 6,000.
Dozens of other Christians and Muslims saved Jewish lives, of course. But this is likely the only instance in which Jews were harboured with a defecting German soldier living under the same roof.
Now, a fictionalized account of the story of Francisca Halamajowa and her adult daughter, Helena (previously also the subject of a documentary) has been released: My Mother's Secret, by Toronto writer J.L. Witterick.
The book is a self-published first novel written by Jenny Witterick, a 52-year-old Taiwanese-Canadian. Now the president of Sky Investment Counsel, a Bay Street money manager, she came to Toronto at age 8 speaking no English. She has no formal connection to the Jewish community.
Witterick is deploying her business acumen to do what few Canadian publishers do well: aggressively market the book. She's invested thousands of dollars in radio, bus shelter and newspaper ads (including a double-page spread in 180,000 Toronto neighbourhood Post magazines).
Regardless of how it sells – it's available in paperback, for $8.95 – Witterick will make no money from the venture. All proceeds are being donated to various charities, including the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation, Girls Helping Girls and ALS Research.
Although the story is rooted in the Holocaust, its core message, she maintains, is universal.
"It's really about choosing the kind of person you will be," Witterick said in a recent interview. "How we live and who we want to become. Because we all face ethical choices in life. We can choose compassion and kindness just by deciding so."
Witterick's inspiration was No. 4 Street of Our Lady, a 2009 documentary that chronicles the heroism of Halamajowa and her daughter.
"Here was a woman who had no education to speak of, no resources," she said. "You never would have picked her for a profile in courage. But she was able to outsmart the Germany army literally camped on her doorstep."
Rather than trying to avoid scrutiny, for instance, Halamajowa sought out German officers and invited them to dinner – with a family of Jews hidden in the cellar and the German soldier in the attic. After seeing the film, Witterick concluded it would make a good book. It took only a few weeks for her to decide to write it herself. Such a project might have intimidated others. Not Witterick, who has spent a lifetime defying conventional wisdom.
"When I started Grade 2," she remembers, "all the kids thought I was retarded, because I didn't speak English."
By Grade 4, she was a star student. She graduated from high school second in her class and, winning a four-year academic scholarship, studied business at London, Ont.'s Western University, working every weekend at Avis car rental. She graduated debt-free. Her parents' total financial contribution to her degree: $20.
After four years with legendary Bay Street investor Prem Watsa (Fairfax Financial), she joined Foyston, Gordon & Payne, managing its global investment division. In 2004, she set up her own firm, Sky. The firm now manages $1.8-billion in assets.
In person, Witterick projects a sense of steely confidence, tempered by humility and warmth. She believes firmly in will power: When it comes to achieving goals, she insists, raw desire is more important than talent, social connections or anything else. Although she'd tried her hand at fiction in high school, she recalls – with results impressive enough that her teacher encouraged her to make it her profession – she'd written nothing since.
Using only her iPad (without the separate keyboard attachment), Witterick began writing whenever she could find a spare hour – on airplanes, in cars and at her summer cottage, usually accompanied by 1970s music.
"This will sound hokey," she says, "but it didn't feel hard to write. I felt almost like I was channelling it. If I'm not tired, I can pretty much write any time."
Taking the factual bones of history, she embellished the Halamajowas' story with new characters and dialogue. Her short chapters are written simply and in the present tense – "to help create a sense of immediacy," she explained. But there's more complexity than it seems at first. She tells the story using multiple first-person narrators – mother, daughter, Jewish father, German soldier – so that the full picture of what transpired only emerges at the end. The cumulative effect is powerful.
When she was finished writing, Witterick sent the manuscript to various publishers; all rejected it, saying the world was not urgently in need of another Holocaust novel.
"I don't blame them," she says. "I know how to get things done in the business world, but in the literary world, I'm as close to a nobody as you can get. I have no credentials. But I have no fear – that's my life. "
To get the book into Chapters/Indigo, she left a copy with a manager at the chain's central Toronto store. He liked it enough to invite her to do an in-store talk and book signing. She later sold 143 copies in a single night and was booked to appear at two other Indigo locations.
Does her interest in writing impinge on her life in finance? Not at all, she insists. "People go to the gym, collect stamps, do volunteer work, have hobbies. This is my hobby. People without hobbies are one-dimensional and they burn out."
Witterick is already 20 chapters into her second novel, a romance set in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, Witterick hopes My Mother's Secret can one day be adapted for the movies. "It's a long shot, I know. But I believe in long shots. I am a long shot."