December 5, 2002
Purdue professor chronicles how his family fooled Nazis, escaped
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. Unlike many Jewish families who hid in attics or cellars to save themselves during World War II, a Purdue University professor and his family masqueraded as Polish aristocrats right in front of the Nazis.
Robert Melson, professor of political science in the School of Liberal Arts, captures his family's escape from the Nazis during World War II in his latest book, "False Papers: Deception and Survival in the Holocaust."
"Instead of a hiding place, my family hid behind false documents a false identity," said Melson, a holocaust and genocide scholar. "By sheer chutzpah and bravado, my mother was able to acquire the identity papers of the Zamojskis, a Polish family of noble lineage, by assuming the role of the countess and posing for her family's 'lost' papers. We were seen, but not noticed, by the Nazis."
Melson was only 4 years old when his family changed their names and identities in an attempt to survive the holocaust. Melson, born as Sylvio Mendelsohn, became Count Boguslaw (Bobi) Marian Zamojski. His parents, Willy and Nacia, of Warsaw, became Countess Nina and Count Jan. (The real Count Jan Zamojski died this summer). The family's charade also preserved the lives of Melson's uncle and three Jewish women.
The family lived in Kraków, the capital of German-occupied Poland, among other high-ranking Nazis. They lived knowing that even though their immediate family survived, grandparents and other relatives never made it out of the Warsaw ghetto.
The family's success in outsmarting the Nazis is attributed not only to Melson's mother obtaining the false papers, but also to the family's non-Jewish looks and ability to play the part of Aryans well. Melson had golden curls and blue eyes, and both of his parents spoke without a Yiddish accent.
"Still, my parents worried that someone from their past could see them, or one of us would say the wrong thing to give away our true lineage," Melson said.
The story is based on 17 hours of taped interviews with Melson's parents in July 1978. He interviewed them separately to acquire each parent's individual perspective.
"There were times during the interviews that we were overcome with grief, but the truth is we always felt a measure of pride in our survival," Melson said. "After all, we had eluded and outwitted Adolf Hitler's Nazi killers."
Melson and his parents narrate the book by alternating chapters. At the end of each chapter, Melson shares his childhood memories. As the book progresses, Melson's childhood memoir gets longer and more detailed as he gets older.
The book not only chronicles the heroics of Melson's parents, but it also talks about their lives, and at times, their unorthodox behavior that kept their family alive. His mother's way with men, good looks and acting talents were great assets to the family.
"Before the war, my mother was a singer and actress," Melson said. "She couldn't know before the war that her greatest role would be that of a Polish countess, a part she would have to play day and night for nearly four years."
Melson's father even impersonated a German official to scare people into doing business with him to make money for the family to live the life of nobility.
The book also documents Melson's parents' struggles after the war to return to real identities and emigrate to America.
"False Papers" was published in 2000 by University of Illinois Press. Melson also is the author of the award-winning "Revolution and Genocide: On the Origins of the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust."
The book is $26.95 and is available from University of Illinois Press by calling (217) 333-0950.
Writer: Amy Patterson-Neubert, (765) 494-9723, email@example.com
Source: Robert Melson, (765) 494-4187, firstname.lastname@example.org
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; email@example.com
NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: Copies of the book are available to journalists by contacting Danielle Wilberg, at University of Illinois Press, at (217) 244-4689 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A publication-quality photograph is available at ftp://ftp.purdue.edu/pub/uns/melson.falsepapers.jpeg.