The first time Holocaust survivor Fanya Gottesfeld Heller told her story at Pacific High School, an alternative public school in downtown Brooklyn, she jumped every time a school bell sounded. The students, mostly black and Latino, all from low-income and troubled homes, noticed.
And all understood. Some 70 years after she came under Nazi rule as a young teen in her native Ukraine, and some 50 years after she immigrated to the United States, part of her is still that frightened adolescent.
“It brought [her earlier suffering] home,” said Susan Cohen, a retired English teacher who in 1991 began the school’s Holocaust curriculum that first invited Heller as a guest speaker a decade ago.
Since then, Heller, who has made a late-in-life career as an author and public speaker, has returned every year. In Pacific High School, like in the many settings she visits to describe her life in hiding from the Nazis, she forms a bond with the teenagers, many of them victims of poverty, homelessness and abuse.
The students at Pacific have failed in traditional high schools. The bond between Heller and the high school’s students is a subplot of “Teenage Witness: The Fanya Gottesfeld Heller Story,” a documentary — based on her 2005 autobiography “Love in a World of Sorrow” (Devora Publishing) — that premiered in April on PBS and was screened on Monday at the high school.
In a dark basement gymnasium, two-dozen past and present Pacific High School students, sitting on aluminum bleachers, watched the documentary in silence as Heller, sitting on a chair at the side, watched the students while wiping away tears.
This week’s screening was, at Heller’s request, one of the first public viewings of the documentary. “She wanted it in the school, with her students,” Cohen said.
The documentary, produced by Nikki Silver, Orly Wiseman and Ed Wiseman, and narrated by Richard Gere, weaves together historical footage with Heller’s speeches at the school over a two-year period. On camera, the classes turn into counseling sessions, the teens sharing their lives of pain and deprivation, and Heller, now 85, advising them on how to persevere.
The intergenerational bond was evident in the high school gym.
After the documentary ended, the teens, most towering over Heller, came up to hug her. They were dressed in shorts and dresses, hoodies and dress jackets.
“I love this woman,” said Narell Hunt, a Pacific High School graduate, standing at a podium next to the screen. Now a sophomore at City Technical College, she is studying for a career in forensic psychology.
Hunt, 21, has spent much of her life living in homeless shelters. “I was angry about my situation,” she said. Until she met Heller.
“She was happy,” Hunt said of the survivor. “That was amazing.” Heller’s ability “to see joy” despite suffering changed Hunt’s outlook, she said.
“Each and every student here has been through something — we all had the feeling of being abandoned,” said Hunt, who brought her 4-year-old daughter, Nia, to the event.
Had she not met Heller, she said, “I probably would have dropped out of school.
“All the students,” she said, “felt that way.”
“I was like you. I have scars,” Heller told the rapt students. “I was lucky,” she said. She survived the Shoah, raised a family and became a philanthropist.
Her advice: “You can’t be a bystander in your life. Go to school. Pick yourselves up.”
The kids applauded.
“I’m kvelling,” Heller said. Then she explained the Yiddish term for getting pride — usually from one’s family, in her case, from her extended family.
Pacific High School is commonly known as a “second-chance” institution; for many students, it’s their second or third chance to complete their academic requirements before dropping out of school.
“You have touched their lives,” City Councilmember Sara Gonzalez, a guest at Monday’s event, told Heller.
From Heller’s first appearance at the school, the students were “so receptive to her,” said Cohen, who introduced a “Literature of the Persecuted” elective course at the school and brought in survivors as guest speakers to supplement an initial study of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
From the first day, the students called Heller “Fanya.”
“There’s no ‘Mrs. Heller,’” said Cohen, who continues to work at the school as a part-time testing coordinator. “Fanya has a special gift for reaching across the generations and touching hearts.”
Each year, Cohen said, Heller talks openly about subjects ranging from rape to hiding for one’s life. “The students asked outrageous questions. She answered everything.”
They listen, Cohen said, because Heller “went through hell and emerged.”
“They find out that I’m real,” Heller said.
She started discussing her wartime experiences about 20 years ago, often in non-Jewish, inner-city settings. “Each school, the same speech,” she said. “Each school, the same reaction.”
In one prep school, she said, a student asked what is was like to feel hunger pangs.
In places like Pacific High School, she said, no one asks. “They understand. They know how it is to be hungry.”
Despite the apparent difference in age and ethnicity, “there’s a lot in common,” Heller said.
“When I come in,” she said, “they put a face to [another group’s] suffering.”
As originally designed, “Teenage Witness” was to focus on Heller’s life. Pacific High School became a prominent part of the documentary after the producers watched one of Heller’s speeches there and observed the chemistry between her and the students.
“It was an amazing connection,” producer Nikki Silver said. “They locked into her.”
She read Heller’s book a few years ago and decided Heller’s survival was the perfect subject for a documentary.
“We wanted to tell Fanya’s story,” she said, “but to tell Fanya’s story is to tell her story of today — how do we keep stories of the Holocaust alive?”
The documentary won the Park City Film Music Festival’s Jury Choice Gold Medal for Excellence, and is being shown at film festivals around the country.
After the documentary was screened, the students joined Heller at a small reception.
A bell rang. Heller jumped slightly. The bell reminds her of sudden frights of decades past, of police whistle and unexpected knocks on the door.
Hunt, who said she yearns for privacy after a lifetime of sharing public bathrooms in homeless shelters, said she, too, will carry unpleasant memories forever.
It didn’t surprise her that Heller reacted to a harmless bell. “I understand.”
Signup for our weekly email newsletter here.