Holocaust victims were remembered and survivors honored Monday night as the Teaneck Jewish Community Council held its 29th Holocaust commemoration.
The auditorium at Teaneck High School was packed as hundreds of survivors, family, and friends listened to a gripping account of living through the Holocaust by Fanya Gottesfeld Heller, who grew up in a small village in Ukraine.
Heller, the keynote speaker, confronted the unanswerable question: “Who were the killers, who killed during the day and ate dinner and listened to Beethhoven at night?”
How did the best minds in Germany – doctors, engineers, architects – apply their brain power to perfecting the Nazi killing machine?
Yet the man who saved her family, at risk to his own and his family’s life, was an illiterate, poor, Polish peasant, motivated by the desire simply to take the moral path with no ulterior motive.
The family hid for two years in the attic, then the barn, then a hole under where the cows were kept. They were plagued by lice and typhus, Heller said. Even their Polish rescuer was stricken, and he did not seek treatment because it was known that hidden Jews suffered from typhus and he would be given away.
“He made his choices” to do the right thing, she said of the Polish man, noting that other neighbors were all too ready to collaborate with the Nazis,
Heller, now living in Manhattan, told of the anti-Semitism that existed in her village even before the Nazis came, and then after the war ended. She pointed to the ignorance of her neighbors.
“They didn’t know about us, and we didn’t know about them,” she said. “We Jews had to take care of each other from cradle to grave. At a young age I had to grow up overnight.”
The horrors of the killing were made vivid in her talk. The village was surrounded by a brook that ran red from the blood of victims, she said. Of 1,500 Jews in her village, only 45 survivors, “skeletons” as she called them, came back after the war.
Heller spoke of the challenges facing women who had to make agonizing choices, for example about whom to feed when food was very scarce.
After the war, anti-Semitism was still virulent, and Heller told of her life as a refugee, getting married, and looking for refuge in European countries. “Nobody wanted us. The irony is we wound up in Germany,” she said, where her daughter was born.
After her ordeal, being attended to by German doctors was too much to bear, and she quickly fled with her newborn daughter, she said.
Heller spoke of her renewal of faith. “I came back to God because God was good to me,” she said, citing her family. She has three children, eight grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren.
“We all must care for each other, Jews, Christians, and Muslims,” she said.
After a long journey, she arrived in the United States in 1960.
Heller brings a unique expertise to the Holocaust issue. Besides her own encounter with good and evil, she holds a master’s degree in psychology.
Her experiences are recounted in her book, “Love in a World of Sorrow: A Teenage Girl’s Holocaust Memoirs.” A documentary based on the book was produced, “Teenage Witness: The Fanya Heller Story,” narrated by Richard Gere. (Read more about Heller on her website, www.fanyaheller.com.)
Among other survivors attending the event, emotion flowed.
Ernest Osimsky tried to stifle a tear as he recalled his childhood in Vienna and his survival of Mathaushen. “I don’t forgive and I don’t forget.”
“All my family is gone, I live in the past,” he said. He said he feels it’s his duty to attend memorials, and he would “feel guilty” if he didn’t. He is 84.
For Irene Frank of River Edge, a native of Berlin, it means a lot to honor the memories of her family, who were killed. Monday was her birthday, and she recalled working on a flax- processing machine in a slave labor camp on the same day, May 2, 1945, when Berlin surrendered.
She brought with her a small doll, made out of flax, given to her by a young girl inmate at that same camp as a birthday gift in 1945.
Frank was accompanied by her granddaughter, Michele Fais. “It’s an honor to be walking up [to light a candle] with my grandmother and to honor what she has been through,” said Michele. “She’s a strong lady.”
Marlo Schachter of Bergenfield, who survived the Kovno ghetto, was there with three generations of offspring: daughter Claire Hirschhorn; granddaughters Cheryl Scher and Erica Yadlovker; and great-granddaughter Sara Shoshana, 18 months.
“It’s something beautiful,” she said, gazing at Sara Shoshana.
Schachter was accompanied by her husband, Julius Stern, who left Germany in 1939.
The evening was opened by welcoming remarks by Bruce Prince, co-president of the Jewish Community Council, and Steven Fox, one of the chairpersons for the event. Fox noted that the remembrance took 12 months of preparation and the efforts of some 40 volunteers.
Teaneck Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin read a proclamation designating May 1 to May 8 as Days of Remembrance.
As part of the somber evening, some 30 survivors in the darkened auditorium stood for several minutes, each holding a small light. Also, family members of survivors came on stage to light candles.
The names of family members of local residents lost in the Holocaust were read by Rabbi John Krug and Arline Duker.
Meir Fox, a Frisch graduate and Queens College student, led the gathering in singing “Hatikvah,” followed by “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Yiddish songs of the Holocaust were performed by Zalmen Mlotek with his sons Avram and Elisha.
The Holocaust committee is working to establish a permanent memorial to Holocaust victims with a Teaneck connection, Fox said. They are seeking ideas for a location and a design. Information on the committee can be found at www.teaneckyomhashoa.org.
For more Yom HaShoah photographs, go to www.jstandard.com.