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.
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
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.