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.
My mother found her own voice, literally discovering powerful speaking skills and she became a sought-after lecturer. She introduced herself as a Holocaust survivor with the emphatically added suffix “who survived Hitler once and Stalin twice”. At once, connected to her riveted listeners, she described her terrifying wartime experiences while encouraging disadvantaged students and young adults not to give up. My mother taught her children and all whom she addressed that morbid hatred, unmitigated anger, or soul-killing bitterness need not be the outcome of suffering. Her genuine love of life was infectiously uplifting and motivated many students to take action to improve their life circumstances. This renewed version of herself became a role model, a superheroine who received thousands of letters from young and old the world over. My mother knew the relevance of creating a cogent personal narrative. Storytelling about self, family and ancestry are important for personal growth and connection to others. Her life affirming excitement was audible, visible, and palpable. Until the final day of her remarkable 93 year- life, she joyfully seized each moment of each day with love, gratitude, and generosity.
Fanya Heller bravely bore witness and championed Holocaust education and awareness with majesty. My legacy is to honor and echo her messages of love, tolerance, hope and renewal. My personal journey is informed by my being the child of Holocaust survivors (2g), as humanitarian, medical doctor, psychiatrist. My aim is to diminish epigenetic inherited trauma by guiding us to our hidden past injuries and traumas. Hurt people can inadvertently hurt and damage others. In order to raise well-loved, securely attached, confident, autonomous and empathic children, we need to reeducate ourselves. By promoting introspection and self – reflection, we can become psychological sleuths and sift our past for clues as to why we are who we are. Otherwise, self- deception conceals complex emotions like self-loathing, envy, rage, shame and humiliation, all readily cast off and projected into innocents via bullying and scapegoating. I believe these unassimilated emotions comprise the rudimentary precursors to evil itself. In the best of circumstances, my field can help prevent victims from becoming perpetrators; children from growing into hateful, murderous adults and ordinary people from turning a blind eye to the victimization of their fellow human beings.
Throughout my adult life, my mother and I shared great exchanges about many books we both read. She would be delighted with this volume, a co-production of the Center she established with the Arnold and Leona Finkler Institute of Holocaust Research. Following an illuminating preface by renowned Holocaust scholar, Marion Kaplan, are 28 self-reflective stories by notable women scholars. These women- historians, sociologists, anthropologists, literary and art critics – who devoted much of their lives to writing about women during the Holocaust, are testimony to the necessity of understanding ourselves- including hidden hurts and buried traumas-before we can go further.