I am eternally grateful to my late parents, who lived lives deserving of recognition and remembrance. Their absence reminds me that they hoped to have earned significance in the hearts and minds of loved ones in the end. My father, the unsung hero of my family, modeled the importance of knowing one’s heritage and connection to ancestors. A rare individual with tremendous wisdom and empathy, he loved me unconditionally. He demonstrated that gratitude and taking personal responsibility for one’s actions are necessary, no matter how devastating life’s blows.
Likewise, my mother taught me that morbid hatred, unmitigated anger, or soul-killing bitterness need not result from suffering. We co-created a loving relationship during my early twenties that has sustained me ever since. We learned there is no limit to personal growth and deepening bonds so long as we look inward and toward one another.
“My mother taught me that morbid hatred, unmitigated anger, or soul-killing bitterness need not result from suffering”
Preface, Her Story, My Story? Writing About Women and the Holocaust
My late mother, Fanya Gottesfeld Heller was born in 1924 and raised in a small Ukrainian village in a stable, traditional Jewish home environment. She benefitted from a secure connection to her parents, especially her adoring and empowering father, who lauded her smarts and bookishness.
Her nuclear family narrowly escaped extermination by the Nazis with the help of two Christian rescuers. Initially they hid behind a farmer’s chicken coop, but for two years squatted underground in a small ditch dug beneath a drinking trough. With barely any food and little protection from freezing cold winters and stifling hot summers it is miraculous- unfathomable, that four people survived in that dark, cramped, lice and rat-infested ditch.
After the liberation Fanya and my late father, Joseph Heller, a fellow survivor, married. For years, homeless and stateless, they migrated through Europe, eventually making it to the US. Even during those nomadic years, my mother read voraciously. I believe that nascent intelligence, an excellent education, and outstanding memory contributed to her resilience and drive, but most important were the secure and nurturing attachments in early life. She studied art history at Columbia University, philosophy and literature at the New School and family therapy at the Ackerman Institute. Fanya Heller obtained a B.A. and an M.A. in psychology from the New School for Social Research and honorary doctoral degrees from Yeshiva University and Bar-Ilan University.
Forty years after their liberation and shortly after my father’s death in 1986, Fanya’s years of hard work engaged in self- reflection, recovery and renewal, had impressive results. A candid autobiography of her wartime story, was published in 1993 (KTAV) under the title of Strange and Unexpected Love: A Teenage Girl’s Holocaust Memoirs, and then reissued in 2005 under a new title, Love in a World of Sorrow (Devora Publishing) which was adapted into a PBS documentary film narrated by Richard Gere. She wrote the bestseller, Hidden (Scholastic 2016), for school-age children shortly before her death in 2017.