A very unlikely war hero: How Spencer Bright's story about a family friend's secret past has become an Oscar-nominated film
22:35 GMT, 23 March 2012
As a child, I never knew Mr Margulies’ first name. He seemed far too important to speak to me.
A stalwart of the Jewish community, he catered the biggest kosher functions in London, the bar mitzvahs and the weddings, and, like my late father, spoke with a Polish accent.
I didn’t know Mr Margulies’ story back then and if I had I wouldn’t have believed it. My sister Georgina was, and still is, the best friend of his daughter Cecilia.
Robert Wieckiewicz as Leopold Socha in In Darkness. who was the chief supervisor of the Lvov sewers
He employed my mother part-time in
the kitchens at his posh functions and catered my bar mitzvah. My
widowed mother didn’t have much money, but he generously gave her a
discount. Over the years, I learned his name
was Mundek and his wife was called Klara. People said they had survived
the war in the sewers of Poland. Even though they shared few details of
their ordeal, it has now been turned into a major Oscar-nominated movie,
For Cecilia and her elder brother Henry, who I later learned was conceived in the sewers of Lvov in eastern Poland, the war was an impossible subject to talk to their parents about. ‘I remember asking my father a question and he started crying hysterically,’ says Cecilia. ‘I said, “Never mind.” It was taboo.’ Their mother was equally emotional. ‘She wanted to black it out,’ says Henry. ‘Denial was the only way she could survive,’ adds Cecilia.
Then in 1988 Mundek saw a story about the Ukrainian militia in the Jewish Chronicle and wrote to put his point of view. He had suffered at the hands of the vicious Ukrainians who wreaked havoc in the elegant city of Lvov on behalf of the Nazis. An exchange ensued, piquing the interest of writers and historians. Eventually, Mundek and Klara were persuaded to tell their story.
The real Mundek Margulies and Klara Keller in 1939
It turns out back in Poland the young
Mundek had a more colourful existence. Raised in an orphanage from the
age of 11, he learnt to think on his feet, running a barber’s shop but
mainly wheeling and dealing. He was a black marketeer who could get you
eggs and razor blades. In the ghetto, he was marked for deportation to
the death camps but survived on multiple false papers.
Germans entered Lvov in June 1941 after invading the Soviet Union. The
Jewish ghetto was created in December 1941 and Mundek and Klara were
among tens of thousands herded in. When it was liquidated most Jews were
sent to death camps. Mundek heard of a shaft from a flat into the
sewers and helped the digging, using knives, forks and small tools. In
the flat next door was Klara Keller, his future wife, and her sister
Manya. He brought them supplies, as they had no income, Mundek and Klara
joined a group of ten going underground.
If spotted he would have been shot. The
one time he came across a German soldier, Mundek disarmed him and killed
him with a hammer.
The descent into the sewers was especially traumatic for Klara. Her sister was meant to join them, but on the day Manya refused, believing she had a better chance of survival above ground. In the film, she enters but panics and leaves, but in reality it was a tug of love at the shaft entrance. ‘Manya became hysterical,’ says Henry. ‘It was chaotic. My father pulled Klara one way as Manya pulled her the other. Klara was guilty she was in the sewer and felt her sister should have been with her as well.’
A few hundred Jews are believed to have entered the sewers but most perished, either from disease or by falling into the treacherous river that ran through it. Others committed suicide or were caught and shot. But Mundek’s group enlisted the help of Leopold Socha, the chief supervisor of the Lvov sewers. A former criminal, he at first saw the Jews as a chance to make money. But he was drawn to their struggle and when they ran out of funds to pay him, he carried on bringing them food, washing their clothes and moving them to safe spots when faced with danger.
In those months underground, Mundek was unusually courageous, often emerging into the deserted ghetto to scavenge for useful implements. If spotted he would have been shot. The one time he came across a German soldier, Mundek disarmed him and killed him with a hammer.
Benno Frmann as Mundek (second from right) comforts Agnieszka Grochowska as Klara
After several weeks, Klara needed to
know what had become of her sister. In an act of astounding, if not
reckless, bravery, Mundek went into the city’s concentration camp to
search for Manya. He found someone from the camp on an outside work
detail and swapped places with them several times.
‘My father was fearless,’ says Cecilia.
‘Nothing was an obstacle. If there was a brick wall he could break
through it.’ Eventually, he found Manya behind a fence in the women’s
section and implored her to come with him, to no avail. Neither Mundek
nor Klara ever saw her again.
In the movie, it is after Mundek’s return to break the news to Klara that a tender love scene unfolds. ‘When she realised what Mundek had done for her, she felt much more secure that someone was looking after her,’ says Henry. ‘She fell in love with him then,’ adds Cecilia. ‘Their whole married life was like that. He did everything for her and she relied on him. It was a beautiful relationship.’
The lover of one of those men gave birth
to their child in the sewer but smothered it to avoid them all being
undone by its cries
Though there was a need for unity in the underground Jewish encampment, in close quarters sometimes tempers frayed. One day two of the children among them kept making noise, and an exasperated man turned his gun on them before being calmed down. He and two others later tried their luck outside only for their bullet-ridden bodies to be found at the sewer entrance.
The lover of one of those men gave birth to their child in the sewer but smothered it to avoid them all being undone by its cries. Klara also became pregnant in the sewer. Henry was born in October 1944, three months after the Russians liberated Lvov. But Klara was deeply scarred by her experience. ‘You couldn’t take the fear of persecution out of her,’ says Cecilia. ‘She kept telling me there is going to be another war. She always had a suitcase packed and lived simply. She said it was not worth owning or having anything. You had to be ready to leave.’
Mundek and Klara married in Lvov and moved to England. ‘Throughout their life they would hold and kiss each other a lot,’ says Cecilia. ‘He was her hero, always looking after her, bringing her flowers and little things. They couldn’t live without each other. They were together in work and in life.’
The couple had a long, happy marriage until the elderly Mundek was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. When a distraught Klara could no longer look after him he went into a care home, which broke her heart. In 1997, she died of a stroke at 74. Six months later, her hero passed away, too, aged 83.
In Darkness is in cinemas now.