In the basement gymnasium of Pacific High School, an alternative “second chance” public school in downtown Brooklyn, an elderly Holocaust survivor screened a documentary seven years ago about her survival as a teenager.
On aluminum bleachers sat a few dozen teens, past and present Pacific High School students, mostly black and Latino, outfitted in shorts and dresses, hoodies and dress jackets. They watched in silence, wiping away tears.
Afterwards, they approached Fanya Gottesfeld Heller, the subject of the documentary that was based on her autobiography, to hug her. Everyone called her “Fanya.”
“I love this woman,” declared Narell Hunt, a graduate of the high school who was studying forensic psychology at City Technical College, telling Ms. Heller that the survivor had inspired her to stay in school.
The bond that Ms. Heller inspired was typical of the reaction she evoked for several decades with members of a younger, U.S.-born generation.
Ms. Heller, who died on Oct. 31 at 93 in her Manhattan home, for several years worked in the real estate firm of her husband Joseph. After his death in 1986 she then turned to a life of philanthropy and spent 2½ decades sharing her survival story, in print and in frequent speeches, often to audiences of non-Jews, often in inner-city settings.
She was passionate and she was truthful. She didn’t exaggerate. She simply told her story,” said Haskel Lookstein, rabbi emeritus at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side. “She came across as the real thing.”
Hence the emotional reaction at Pacific High School.
“I was like you. I have scars,” Ms. Heller would tell the students.
In her “Strange and Unexpected Love: A Teenage Girl’s Holocaust Memoirs” (Ktav, 1993), reissued as “Love in a World of Sorrow: A Teenage Girl’s Holocaust Memoirs” (Gefen, 2015), she wrote graphically about life as a persecuted Jew, including details of the rape of an aunt in front of her husband following a Gestapo raid. “I can make no apologies for what I did to survive or for the candor of my account,” she wrote in the preface.
A teenager when her family in Ukraine was forced into hiding, she entered into a romantic relationship with a local policeman, who sheltered the family. Later, the Gottesfelds were protected in the barn of a local farmer. Immigrating to the United States after World War II, Ms. Heller earned B.A. and M.A. degrees in psychology from the New School for Social Research here.
“Hidden: A True Story of the Holocaust,” for younger readers, was released by Scholastic earlier this year.
“Teenage Witness: The Fanya Heller Story,” the 2009 documentary, was based on her autobiography and her relationship with teenage students.
“The Holocaust left an indelible mark on my life,” said Ms. Heller, “and impacted every aspect of my life as a woman, as a Jew and as a mother. And for the legacy of those who perished, for future generations, I can never forget.”
“She told the unvarnished truth … in a way that nobody else had. She wrote about it from a women’s perspective,” said Abraham Foxman, former national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a fellow Holocaust survivor. “She was ahead of her time. She broke some taboos. She was ostracized in the beginning.”
Foxman said Ms. Heller had a unique way of telling her story “that inspired people … she talked about horrible things, but encouraged people with optimism.”
“She was fun to be with,” he said. “She always had a smile, a witty thing to say.”
She is survived by three children, a brother, eight grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren.
Ms. Heller sponsored an annual educators conference at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, and established The Fanya Heller Center for the Study of Women in Judaism at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. At Yeshiva University she established the Benjamin and Charlotte Gottesfeld Chair in Talmud, the Fanya Gottesfeld Heller Chair in Jewish Education, and the Fanya Gottesfeld Heller Division of Doctoral Studies.
She served on the boards of several Jewish institutions, including The Jewish Museum, Yeshiva University, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the American Society for Yad Vashem.
“She completely devoted her life to alleviating the suffering and hardships of people,” said Rabbi Lookstein. “She devoted herself to eliminating ignorance of the Holocaust.” Whenever his synagogue sponsored a program devoted to the Shoah, the rabbi said, “you could depend on Fanya Heller to support it. She was a person who sought out Jewish communal needs and was relentless in meeting them.”
In 1988 the New York State Board of Regents presented her the Louis E. Yavner Citizen Award for “her outstanding contributions to teaching about the Holocaust and other assaults on humanity.”
After her speech to the students at Pacific High School seven years ago, all the kids applauded.
“I’m kvelling,” she said. Then she explained to her extended family what the Yiddish term for pride means.