Annual event at Teaneck High School featured Fanya Gottesfeld Heller.
About 1,000 people came out Monday night to attend the Yom Hashoa Annual Holocaust Commemoration at and to listen to guest speaker and Holocaust survivor Fanya Gottesfeld Heller.
Teaneck Holocaust Commemoration Committee member Amy Elfman said the yearly event always includes a keynote speaker who is a Holocaust survivor. She said it’s becoming increasingly difficult each year to find someone because survivors are getting older and many are passing away.
“We were fortunate to get Ms. Heller, who still does speaking engagements and happily consented to being with us,” Elfman said.
Bruce Prince, co-president of the Jewish Community Council of Teaneck and owner of the , thanked the crowd for attending the event, which marked its 29th year.
“This event brings together more members of our community than any other single gathering,” he said. “It demonstrates our collective resolve to stand together and to mourn together and to honor those who perished and preserve their memories.”
Guests in the audience included Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan and Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin.
Hameeduddin read a proclamation from the Township Council to acknowledge the event.
“We the people of the Township of Teaneck should actively rededicate ourselves to the principals of individual freedoms in a just society,” said the mayor, reading excerpts from the proclamation. “In the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and in the honor of the survivors, as well as the rescuers and liberators, and further proclaim that we, as citizens of the Township of Teaneck, should strive to overcome intolerance and indifference through learning and remembrance.”
Heller shared her experiences of her and her family surviving Nazi death squads thanks to the family’s own perseverance and the help of two Christian rescuers. Heller details all the harrowing accounts and the struggles through disease and hunger in her book Love in a World of Sorrow: A Teenage Girl’s Holocaust Memoirs, for which the documentary was based.
“I’m here because of victory of hope over despair, of light over darkness, of good deeds over evil,” she said.
She said things started to get bad in her village in Ukraine around 1942. She detailed her experiences in the years that followed. She said hunger came first, and it made people desperate.
“Nobody wanted to think about us, nobody wanted to give us a piece of bread,” she said. “We felt abandoned by people. All the neighbors – the Jews disappeared – and the neighbors didn’t ask what happened to them.”
She said a Christian Polish peasant who knew her father took her family in, risking his life while trying to save theirs.
“All his neighbors were Nazi collaborators,” Heller said.
The family stayed with the man for two years, living in the attic and the barn and even in a hole in the floor, which became necessary when neighbors became suspicious.
Heller said everyone, including the Polish man, got typhus and lice. “I had so many lice my hair was moving,” she said.
When hope was starting to dwindle, Heller’s father started to recite poetry to keep morale high. Heller said he disappeared during the liberation.
Heller, her mother and little brother moved from country to country. Heller didn’t find her way to America until 1960.
“It was a very long journey, but it was the first time I felt free,” said Heller, who added she studied at night to earn her degrees (a bachelor’s and master’s in psychology).
She ended by urging those in attendance to teach the children about the Holocaust and to teach them to tolerate each other’s differences.
“In order to do good things, you have to do good for yourself. You have to better yourself, you have to be your brother’s keeper because we never had any help from any country, from any government – we Jews took care of each other from the cradle to the grave,” she said. “And then you have to live in peace. There’s never enough love. No matter if you’re Jewish or Christian or Muslim, there can be peace in this world.”
The night concluded with Yiddish Songs of the Holocaust, sung by Avram, Elisha and Zalmen Mlotek; the reading of the names of family members who perished in the Holocaust; and a candle lighting ceremony that featured survivors, their children and grandchildren.