Cover for MELSON: False Papers: Deception and Survival in the Holocaust. Click for larger image

False Papers

Deception and Survival in the Holocaust

A unique, candid, sometimes funny, often frightening tale of sheer bravado and chutzpah--a dangerous play impeccably performed in the open on the Nazi stage by a courageous Jewish family

False Papers is the astounding story of a Jewish family who survived the Holocaust by living in the open. By sheer chutzpah and bravado, Robert Melson's mother acquired the identity papers that would disguise herself, her husband, and her son for the duration of the war. Always operating under the theory that one needed to be seen in order not to be noticed, the Mendelsohns became not just ordinary Polish Catholics, but the Zamojskis, a Polish family of noble lineage.

Armed with their new lives and their new pasts, the Count and Countess Zamojski and their son, Count Bobi, took shelter in the very shadow of the Nazi machine, hiding day after day in plain sight behind a façade of elegant good manners and cultivated self-assurance, even arrogance: "you had to shout [the Gestapo] down or they would kill you." Melson's father took advantage of his flawless German to build a lucrative business career while working for a German businessman of the Schindler type. The Zamojskis acquired beautiful homes in the German quarter of Krakow and in Prague, where they had maids and entertained Nazi officials. Their masquerade enabled them to save not only themselves and their son but also an uncle and three Jewish women, one of whom became part of the family.

False Papers is a candid, sometimes funny account of a stylish couple who dazzled the Nazis with flamboyant theatrics then gradually, tragically fell apart after the war. Particularly arresting is Melson himself, who was just a child when his family embarked on their grand charade. A resilient boy who had to negotiate bewildering shifts of identify–-now Catholic, now Jewish; now European aristocrat, now penniless refugee who becomes an American college student--Melson closes each chapter of his parents' recollections with his childhood perceptions of the same events.

Against the totalizing, flattening, unrelenting Nazi behemoth, Melson says, "I wished to pit our very bodies, our quirky, sexy, funny, wicked, frail, ordinary selves." By balancing the adults' maneuvering with the perspective of a child, Melson crafts an account of the Holocaust that is at once poignant, entertaining, and troubling.


"False Papers is an extraordinary story of a family's ingenious struggle to outsmart the Nazis against great odds. Robert Melson has brought us the wit, humor, terror, and honesty of his parents in a way that engages the reader page after page. This is a deeply human and morally important book."--Peter Balakian, author of The Black Dog of Fate

"There are a variety of reports of survival under Nazi occupation in existence. False Papers is one of the most creative, dramatic, and unique. . . . Wonderful reading and a major contribution to the understanding of the literature of the Holocaust dealing with survival."--Samuel P. Oliner, author of The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe

"Robert Melson's fascinating, honest, and disturbing memoir is both thriller and sensitive reflection on the dilemmas of being human. I found the book deeply moving and impossible to put down."--Roger Smith, past president, Association of Genocide Scholars

"[O]ne of the most unusual and boldest tales of survival that we have. It is quite simply a great reading adventure."--Christopher R. Browning, author of Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

"A momentous period for a child, a family, and an entire civilization is recalled with such power, beauty, grace and even humor, one is left dazzled."--Thomas J. Cottle, author of Like Fathers, Like Sons: Portraits of Intimacy and Strain

"Melson has brought Primo Levi's ‘Gray Zone' to life. He has written an epic of survival whose characters are immensely attractive, heroic, and flawed. Melson has made Nina and Willy imperishable."--Jacques Kornberg, author of Theodor Herzl: From Assimilation to Zionism

"False Papers is an extraordinary story of a family's ingenious struggle to outsmart the Nazis against great odds. Robert Melson has brought us the wit, humor, terror, and honesty of his parents in a way that engages the reader page after page. This is a deeply human and morally important book."--Peter Balakian, author of The Black Dog of Fate

"There are a variety of reports of survival under Nazi occupation in existence. False Papers is one of the most creative, dramatic, and unique. . . . Wonderful reading and a major contribution to the understanding of the literature of the Holocaust dealing with survival."--Samuel P. Oliner, author of The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe

"Robert Melson's fascinating, honest, and disturbing memoir is both thriller and sensitive reflection on the dilemmas of being human. I found the book deeply moving and impossible to put down."--Roger Smith, past president, Association of Genocide Scholars

"[O]ne of the most unusual and boldest tales of survival that we have. It is quite simply a great reading adventure."--Christopher R. Browning, author of Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

"A momentous period for a child, a family, and an entire civilization is recalled with such power, beauty, grace and even humor, one is left dazzled."--Thomas J. Cottle, author of Like Fathers, Like Sons: Portraits of Intimacy and Strain

"Melson has brought Primo Levi's ‘Gray Zone' to life. He has written an epic of survival whose characters are immensely attractive, heroic, and flawed. Melson has made Nina and Willy imperishable." -- Jacques Kornberg, author of Theodor Herzl: From Assimilation to Zionism


Robert Melson is the current president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars. He is a professor of political science at Purdue University, Indiana, and the author of the award-winning Revolution and Genocide: On the Origins of the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust. Michael Berenbaum, former president of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, is co-producer of the Academy Award-winning documentary One Survivor Remembers: The Gerda Weissman Klein Story and the author of Witness to the Holocaust and other books.

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