Graphic Novel in Progress


(ROZYCZKA Sometimes)

For ten years, while building the WINGS of WITNESS assemblage memorial aided by nearly fifty-thousand helpers, I have been gathering the story of Rozia (Rose) Geisler, my mother-in-law. 'My graphic novel in progress, based on her nearly five year journey of Shoah heroism and horror, includes scraps of notes, old photos, and sections of Rozia's astounding hand written testimony set into my drawings and collages. Many of my visuals are ripped and black, utilizing a graphic process analogous to the Jewish age-old custom of ripping an article of one's clothing when bearing the loss of a loved one. At many funerals, this ritual is still revisited when mourners wear a black ribbon that has been ripped.


1941. After Sara, our unknown grandmother, was severely beaten in a Lvov pogrom she died. The remaining family was forced to disband, each sibling attempting to find their own way to survive. Rozia, then a teenager, took a false Polish Christian name, Janina Popowich, and hid out in churches and on Krakow streetcars. Eventually, while attempting to obtain false papers, she was arrested under the suspicion of being a Jew. Rozia was subsequently tortured and incarcerated at the Montelupich Prison in Krakow. She remained in the transport cell the longest of any, achieving a heroic status among the other young women, resulting from her refusal to break down from the continuous beatings and interrogations. Tragically, most of the other young girls were murdered. 

With her Jewish identity unproved, Rozia was sent to the Szebnie labor camp with the first transport of Polish Christian prisoners. While she struggled with terror, a Gestapo official scrutinizing the prisoner line up was struck by Rozia's resemblance to the Madonna.  

The Gestapo had decreed that the Jewish slave laborers in positions of responsibility had to be removed, rendering their lives even more dispensable. Rozia's supposed Madonna resemblance resulted in the Gestapo selecting her to replace Hilda, the Jewish head hostess to the camp commandant. Thus, Rozia in her disguise as a Polish Christian, was hated by Jewish prisoners and called the "shiksa from hell." Rozia bore these alien identities, Madonna look-alike and shiksa from hell, to preserve herself against a backdrop of constant danger, sadistic sport murder and mass execution.

These polarities of perceptions that her disguise elicited from those around her resulted in her capacity to courageously and selflessly smuggle prisoners to freedom.

At the story's core is a powerful intimacy between Rozia and Hilda, two teenage girls who begin their relationship as archenemies. Eventually, with minds as one, they concoct a theater of survival presented to the unaware elite of the Gestapo, extending the young girls' lives until a brilliant escape plan is developed and implemented. At the same time that Rozia secretly liberates the one she is to replace, Hilda, Hilda's family and others, she continues to serve dinner courses to the Gestapo officials, Rozia's self-sacrificing way of creating the cover for the escape.

Terrifying interrogations about the escape cause Rozia to seek out poison to destroy herself before the Nazis can. Her journey of horror begins to perforate through a shocking twist of fate, just after the Partisans involve her in a plan to poison the Gestapo officials while serving dinner.

Although Rozia was subsequently sent back to the ghastly Montelupich Prison, it was a blessing of timing, as Szebnie was brutally dismantled in 1944. As the Russian army penetrated Poland, prisoners of Montelupich soon shared a similar fate, emboldening Rozia once again.

Rozia's (Rose Geisler) survival is a life-sustaining story of wit, instinct and courage peppered with some luck of timing, all together outlasting the degradation and brutality perpetrated by fascist Europe. Her story provides both a model of hope, and a reminder for our contemporary world, much of which is still blighted with indecent acts of mass inhumanity, resulting in unconscionable human suffering and loss.

 - Jeffrey Schrier, 2009 


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