Teaching your students about the Holocaust, and the good and the evil that rests in the human psyche,
empowers your students to be the leaders of tomorrow. Fanya's signature
The 16th Annual Educators Conference
Fanya’s Speech
David, thank you so much for your warm and generous introduction. It is truly my pleasure and honor to serve on the board of the Museum and to thank you for your guidance and counsel throughout these many years. I am especially proud to call you my friend.

Good afternoon everyone, and welcome to our 16th annual Educators Conference at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. It is wonderful to see the faces of so many teachers and friends that I recognize from previous years, as well as those of you who are joining us for the first time.  Thank you for being here with us today for what I believe will turn out to be one of our best educators programs. And I have to say that I feel privileged and thankful to be able to be here with all of you today.

Before I begin my brief remarks, I would first like to acknowledge the Museum staff, and in particular Elizabeth Edelstein and Dr. Paul Radensky for their diligence, professionalism and creative thinking in pulling together the program. This is an incredible partnership – and without any hesitation I can proudly state that this is the most outstanding educators conference in the Greater New York area. And I look forward to the continuity of the Educator’s Conference for years to come.

Let me also acknowledge at this time and thank our featured presenters: Dr. Michael Berenbaum and Alexandra Zapruder. They will both be properly introduced to you shortly.

I am a member of the last generation of Holocaust survivors. Acknowledging this is not just an issue of facing my own mortality. I believe I speak for all survivors when I say that peering at the specter of death is something I have seen – and thankfully endured – before. For decades, survivors remained silent, cocooning their scars and pain with unshed tears and unheard cries.

As one author once said: “The Holocaust is a central event in many people’s lives, but it also has become a metaphor for our century. There cannot be an end to speaking and writing about it.” As you know, the theme of this year’s conference is The Holocaust in Literature. This can be understood in two ways.

The first is the sheer volume of writing whose focus is the Holocaust: in all forms – memoir, fiction, biography, non-fiction, related accounts of specific years of the Holocaust – of specific horrors such as starvation, ghettoization, and Nazi experimentation.  In truth, there are so many stories – some requiring years of research, some that just pour forth from the searing heartache of those who suffered through a time when darkness only got darker.

The second way to understand The Holocaust in Literature is that literature itself was rent apart.

From the very early rising of Hitler and his manifesto -Mein Kampf, from the Nazis vandalizing houses and synagogues – throwing Torah scroll after Torah scroll and book after book into their fiery pyres of hatred and evil – literature itself was persecuted, slaughtered and destroyed. Just like the millions of people who were wiped out by the Nazis, there are millions of books that were obliterated as well.

The thought of young people growing up ignorant and detached from the Holocaust is even more painful than the fears I may have felt about sharing my story. So yes, I wrote my book, I recorded my film. But will these be enough to carry forth the message? Will this continue to capture the hearts and mindful understandings of future generations once we are gone?

My childhood should have been a period of typical insecurities and self-discovery, but Hitler had other plans for me. Instead, it became a time of great fear and of constant struggle for survival.  At such a young age, I was forced to learn about two elements of the human psyche – the destructive human potential for evil and, on the flip side, the vast human potential for seemingly unwarranted goodness and kindness.

The Holocaust is a major event in the continuum of world history and cannot be studied in a vacuum.  What occurred was not simply the consequence of hatred and racism.  Rather, it was racism combined with centuries-old prejudice and anti-Semitism.  When people of different races and ethnicities live side by side, but never speak to each other or try to learn about each other’s customs, beliefs or traditions, there are bound to be misunderstandings that start with suspicion and lead to hatred.

Our special guest today, the Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel once said that, “while not all victims were Jews, all Jews were victims.”  While many were sent to die in concentration camps, those living in Skala, my village,were shot on the spot.

All Jews were indeed victims – they all experienced conditions beyond human description and understanding.  Amid the suffering and murder of six million Jews, including 1½ million children, most Europeans chose to remain blind, deaf, and dumb to the Jewish genocide happening around them.

However, not all Germans were Nazis and not all Poles and Ukrainians helped the Nazis.  A very small segment of the Christian population did realize that what was happening to their innocent Jewish neighbors was wrong and risked their own lives to save them.

Luckily, my family was taken in by one of these courageous men. Sidor was an illiterate Polish peasant farmer. He led a simple existence, living with his wife and young daughter on a small farm.  He was the poorest in Skala, but his heroism, values, and strength of character far transcended our little village.  It is only because of him that I am here today and that I have the honor of sharing with you the story of my survival and rescue.

Helping Jews was punishable by death but he was determined to save us.  He created a dugout under the chicken coop, a narrow hiding space big enough for only two people.  It needed to hold all four of us – myself, my mother, my father and my younger brother, Arthur. We were forced to remain in a crouching position for nearly two and a half years, through the duration of the war.

There was no air, no light and no water.  We did not know day from night and we only knew the change of seasons – during the winter we were freezing cold and the summer brought the sweltering heat.  The rats, mice and lice were our only other companions.

During those two and a half years, everything was turned upside down and inside out.  My world of friends and formal education was reduced to a constant swirl of fear, hunger, and basic survival instincts.

Lines between parent and child were soon erased. I was cut off from everything and reverted back to a helpless child.  But this time it was different – my parents were helpless, too. The generation gap falls away quickly when both parent and child are on their knees, begging for a place to hide, for the chance to remain alive for another hour, another day.

Lines between heaven and earth were also blurred.  The skies were thick with the dark smoke from burnt synagogues, burnt books, and burning corpses.  The stream near our house ran red with the blood of our murdered friends and neighbors.

Lines between ally and enemy were capricious at best. A neighbor might save a family one day, only to lead the Nazis to them the very next day. My family and I were at the mercy of our rescuers. We were, of course, grateful for their help, but expected to see a finger of accusation, of betrayal, pointed at us at any moment.

Many Jewish families couldn’t even find one righteous gentile to help them survive.  We were blessed with two, the first being Sidor and the second being Jan, a Ukrainian shoemaker who became a soldier during the war.Jan had taken a particular romantic interest in me and, because of his love for me, came to our rescue right after the Nazis occupied my village. Throughout this entire period, he risked his life — hiding us at times in the attic of his family’s barn — to save ours.

I have often asked myself, and I am now asking you: “Would you risk your life and the life of your precious child to save four strangers who were practically starved and sentenced to death anyway?”  It’s hard for anyone to know.  I would like to think, however, that we would all have the moral courage to do the right thing.

Rescuers like Sidor serve for us as role models. They teach us that even in the nightmare of the Holocaust, human beings have the ability to act humanely, that individuals can make the right choices instead of remaining bystanders in the face of evil.  Without their example, we have only the lessons of brutality, hatred and unspeakable suffering to pass along to future generations.

The will to live is overwhelming, and those of us who did survive did everything in our power to be “normal” again after liberation.  We got married, had children, resumed our education, and entered professions.

But how could we be normal after witnessing the horrors and the suffering? Some say that in order to move on, we have to forget. We could not forget, and we could not forgive.

As teachers, you have the capacity, and the responsibility, to instill in your students a belief in tolerance and a commitment to open dialogues among diverse ethnic groups.  I often wonder how different things would have been if we had known more about our non-Jewish neighbors, and vice versa. How much less scapegoating, suspicion, and hatred would have occurred, had we taken the time to get to know one another. How many more Christians would have stepped up to rescue Jews during the war had they taken the time to see us as human beings just like themselves.

Unfortunately, the world continues to demonstrate that the human potential for evil lurks just below the surface and that hate only breeds more and more hate.  But how much greater is the potential for human kindness, if we only choose to use it.

The classroom in which you teach is an ideal environment in which to begin a conversation among students from different cultural backgrounds.  If young people grow to accept one another’s differences at an early age, perhaps many of the problems that we faced with our Polish and Ukrainian neighbors in Skala can be avoided in future generations. Just as the remaining Holocaust survivors have been imbued with the responsibility to speak for those who no longer can, there will come the time when even the last of us will have passed on – and you and all the future generations will have to speak for us as well.

As teachers, you are a vital link in the chain of knowledge and remembrance.  The children of today are our ambassadors to future generations, who can pass on our message so much more authentically because of the knowledge that you will have imparted to them.

On behalf of the Museum of Jewish Heritage Board of Trustees and the community of Holocaust survivors, I thank you for being here.  We rely on you to be our voices in the schools, to educate your students about the six million Jews who died – of which 1.5 million were children, to tell them about the evil deeds of the Nazi perpetrators, and to highlight the kindness of rescuers who refused to be bystanders.

I would now like to ask Elie Wiesel and his wife, Marion, to join me on the stage.

What do you say to a Nobel Laureate? What can I say to the person who was among the first to have the courage to speak out. To be the Conscience of the World.  Elie, you have been my personal mentor. Because of you I was determined to tell my story at a time when most still kept silent.
It is with great love and friendship that we honor Elie Wiesel today, perhaps the purest and strongest voice in the chorus of survivors and artists. As you once said, Elie, “If you want to find a spark, look in the ashes”.  Elie, you are that spark and you have brought such light and understanding to the world, through your writing and through your very presence. On behalf of the Museum of Jewish Heritage I present you with the first

“Living Words Award”
The 16th Annual Fanya Gottesfeld Heller Educators Conference

Museum of Jewish Heritage, A Living Memorial to the Holocaust
April 23, 2015 – 4th of Iyar 5775

Elie, Marion – I am truly honored that you have joined us this afternoon. Your presence makes this conference extraordinary and memorable.

The 16th annual Educators Conference
Photo Credits: Melanie Einzig