translated by Scotia Gilroy
Romana Halpern was born in 1900. She was the daughter of Aleksander Kenig, a well-known journalist in Warsaw with many connections. She received a thorough education in humanities. She spoke German, French, English and Russian fluently. She grew up within Warsaw's artistic and literary environment.
Artistically talented and with high aspirations, she decided to become an actress and began studies at the Theater School, which she unfortunately was unable to finish. She married Maciej Halpern, with whom she had one son, Stefan, tenderly nicknamed "Stef" by those close to him. She worked with her husband at a film institute, involved in importing foreign-language films and preparing them for distribution.
The question arises of whether this was one of the active, successful film institutions run by Izydor Schulz, director of the Corso Cinematography Agency – a company representing Parisian Gaumont and Italian Mondial?
The Halperns were not a happy couple, and after numerous crises they decided to divorce. Roma lived alone, sometimes with her sickly son, at 6 Focha Street in Warsaw. Her telephone number was 5 04 35, according to the Warsaw Telephone Directory of 1938-39. Later she lived at 17 Jasna Street, with the same telephone number, 5 04 35, according to the Warsaw Telephone Directory of 1939-40.
She worked as a stenographer and secretary in numerous private and public institutions. She organized and participated actively in artistic events in the capital, such as meetings with authors and literary lectures. She became friends with Witold Gombrowicz and Tadeusz Szturm de Sztrem. For a short time she had a relationship with Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, who did a few beautiful pastel portraits of her, which she always kept hanging on the walls of every apartment she lived in. In these portraits we can see that she was a person of unusual beauty and elegance, with long, black hair pulled into a bun and dark brown eyes expressing a deep sadness and loneliness.
Roma, as a divorceé, was forced to cope with her surrounding reality, which was not always sympathetic towards women with such a marital status. She was often forced to change jobs, but she did not complain about her adversities. She was a resourceful and friendly person, shown in her vast correspondence with Bruno Schulz in the years 1936-39, whom she met during his half-year leave of absence from work spent in Warsaw, thanks to their mutual friend, Witkacy. From the very beginning of their acquaintance, Roma gave him help and advice, and showed him a lot of care and attention. She was a cure for all of the bad things in his life, and a reliable helper in arranging all kinds of necessary documents and bureaucratic matters for him. She led him through arrangements for his civil wedding to Józefina Szelińska, obtained foreign currency for him for his trip, and helped him at the passport office. She also helped him in various matters connected with his work and literary efforts. She did not refuse any of the favours that Bruno asked her for in his letters. She was his friend, helping him with his problems, personal failures and increasing states of depression.
She was also struggling with numerous personal problems of her own, which she mentioned in a letter written on May 15th, 1938:
Dear Bruno! It is only today that I'm able to respond to your nearly desperate letter. I no longer live on Focha Street (…) I can't, unfortunately, back up my assurance by acting, but believe me, Bruno, if I wasn't afraid of losing my position, I would be sitting next to you in Drohobych, not because of some treatment in the vicinity of Drohobych – solely for you, so that I could, at any price, pull you out of the horrible doldrums that you have fallen into.
While Roma took care of other people, her own state of health left much to be desired. She was hospitalized as a result of painful attacks of bile and was treated with narcotics. She had an operation to remove a cyst, and was chronically ill with a disease of the liver. She was all alone without any help from her family, and very lonely. Her living conditions during this time became worse. She rented an apartment in a village and paid in advance for five months, but the contract was broken and she was left without a roof over her head. She was forced to stay in a room at the office where she worked, while she waited for the matter to be cleared up by a lawyer. She did not complain about her fate, however, and continued to offer help to Schulz with his plans for a summer trip to Paris.
She wrote to him:
I have the impression that all of these probems with my apartment, and illnesses, and material matters are an excellent cure for things that genuinely hurt. All of it passes. Apartments come and go. But these other things are fundamental (….) Bruno, I beg of you, keep your chin up! In spite of everything, life is still worth living, don't you think?
In August of this year, while Schulz was exploring Paris, Roma spent her holiday in Krynica Górska. Was this because of her poor state of health? It seems quite certain that it was an attempt at convalescence. Certainly she needed to recover from stress resulting from the exam results received by her son, Stefan, who had not been doing very well in school.
Roma made some attempts at writing, which she shared with Schulz. He was very impressed by her writing style and wrote to her:
What a great surprise it is to read your prose! You write wonderfully! I would like to know if you have anything else, and whether you would have the strength to write something longer (…) Keep writing! The ending of your story was very good!
Their acquaintance lasted for three years and was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. During the occupation, Roma and her son were forced to live in the Warsaw ghetto, from which they both managed to escape after the first widescale liquidation action in July 1942. She left her son, Stefan, in the dormitory of the Agriculture Academy near Kielce, and made her way to Krakow, where, under the false name of Janina Sokołowska, she was able to work in a German import-export company due to her excellent command of foreign languages.
Unfortunately, however, in 1944 she was recognized and denounced as a Jew to the Gestapo. She was arrested and was put in the prison on Montelupich Street.
Even though she stubbornly denied her non-Aryan identity throughout many difficult interrogations, she was executed by the Germans. The liberation of Krakow came shortly after her death, on January 18th, 1945.
Romana's son, Stefan Halpern, went to Germany after the war and then to the United States, where he changed his name to Stephen J. Howard and became a doctor.