Your name is Sandy, but your mother prefers Sorale, a diminutive Yiddish version and you’ve just watched, unblinking, an episode of Father Knows Best, one in which the topic of adoption has been explored. Lately you have been troubled and wonder if you too are adopted so when your parents are busy, you carefully find your way into their bedroom, and you decide to go through their things where from your father’s drawer, you unearth some sepia photos and documents of family, but only a few. But when you rifle through her mother’s drawer all your fingers discern is this hard shape which turns out to be this little heart. You turn it over in your hands intrigued, but your mother finds you and admonishes you not to touch it. It’s obviously something very precious because it’s taken out of your hands and returned to its place in the dark drawer.
Years later you will told it has been donated it to the Holocaust Museum in Montréal and you will be upset because you believed the hard little heart was a family treasure that belonged to the family, kind of like their family jewels. By that time, however, you know about the Holocaust and the dark numbers incised on your parents’ wrists.
And so the story of Fania’s Heart begins to unfold.
I heard the story from Heidi, a fellow art student when she related her Yom Kippur break- fast this year, meeting her partner’s cousin Sandy for the second time. Her narrative focused on Sandy or Sorale as her mother affectionately called her, the daughter, and Fania the more than ninety- some year old mother who survived Auschwitz. Heidi is describing the backdrop for her telling, one we have known before, of young women- from Czechoslovakia ,France, Belgium, Germany,Poland , some as young as 15, who were able to remain alive because of their tiny hands.In Fania’s case, she too was put in the munitions section in the Weichsel-Union Metallwerke because her small digits could load tiny ball bearings and prepare weaponry for the Nazis.
Heidi explains that when the heart was donated, a Canadian filmmaker, Carl Leblanc, so interested in the tiny purple heart embroidered with an orange F, began to work on a documentary film entitled “ The Heart of Auschwitz” in 2010 ; more recently in 2018 a children’s book, “ Fania’s Heart” has been released showcasing Fania’s unbelievable story.
She was an adolescent, directed where she could help the war effort against her own people, a Jew imprisoned because she was a Jew. She had all ready been separated from her brother, Leybl, her sister, Moushka and her parents from Bialystok, Poland. In the film, Fania bitterly opines, “ We (the girls at the munitions plant) did not go to the gas chamber…we were ‘privileged’.” To aid the Nazis in the destruction of their own was particularly troubling to the girls who sat ten to a side so occasionally they would misassemble or spoil a part, adding a few pinches of earth, small but incredibly brave acts of defiance. At dusk they would be searched by guards for any smuggled items that could be used against them. It was an existence of lice-infested mattresses, often five to a bunk, lunches of nettles and weeds and shivering for hours in roll call. To survive, Fania imagined her mother’s fragrant chicken soup and attempted to take comfort in small things like the warmth of the sun, encouraging her workmates with smiles or even funny stories.
It was Fania’s 20 th birthday and the women who lined each side of her table knew and wanted to commemorate the day, even in the bleakest impossibility of the camps. Bronia and Zlatka ,also Polish, were Fania’s best friends, slightly older than Fania. It was Zlatka who originated the plan. Each of the twenty girls at her table contributed to an act that could have cost them their lives: paper, scissors, even a bit of torn cloth from Zlatka’s thin purple shirt hidden beneath her striped uniform. The heart they created underlines the bravery, posing the question “ Why would you risk your life for birthday wishes?” The inmates were forbidden to talk, or move from their benches for twelve hours, their elbows touching as they worked. Discovered, this collaborative act could have cost them their fragile lives. Yet somehow, they managed: rubbing bread and water together in their fingers to make glue, scavenging threads..
In a tunnel of fear and hunger, deprivation and worse, an unbelievable undertaking exemplified a form of resistance and strength of the human spirit. Much later, Zlatka wondrous at making a birthday “souvenir” for her friend queries ,” I do not know how could I have dreamed about freedom.”
Fania reflects that on December 12, her birthday, something was being slowly handed from one coworker to the next, making its way towards her. A guard observing bodies and heads brought too close together pulled the main instigator, the genius behind the amazing gift, away and beat her mercilessly, almost costing her her life. Returning to the table bruised and hurt, Zlatka takes her seat again with her friends, their eyes now holding back their tears.
When the uproar settles, Fania discovers “ a small birthday cake my friends had pieced together from their precious bread rations…[t]ucked inside the bread was the heart.”In order to avoid detection, Fania hides it in her armpit, but only in the evening, back in her bunk does she open the heart to realize it is actually a birthday card in the shape of a heart about the size of a butterfly or a daisy and inside, much like origami that folds in on itself, each woman has added a tiny page, each contributing best wishes in her own language. During the days, Fania presses her treasure between the boards where she sleeps at night.
In the pages that fold out from the heart, Giza inscribed,” A lot of luck and freedom.”Mazal scrawls, “May your life be long and sweet.”Irena writes,” I wish that all wishes should be fulfilled.” Others pencil, “ Be light when you dance” and, “When you get old, put on your glasses and read my name.” A little humour perhaps from those forcing themselves to forget that most of them will disappear into the gas chamber by age 20. The backdrop of beatings and hunger has been momentarily erased and each has cast themselves back to the world they once knew: where parties and pretty dresses and tasty dishes and family hugs accompanied all celebrations, but especially on birthdays.
From these sentiments we can imagine they revisited in their heads a relaxed clump of laughing, chattering ingenues, ready to set out on their discovery of the world, love interests and delicious endeavours. Love, food, family, smiles and the embrace of normal life. Like the recipes they recited to one another and aspirations to eventually eat to their heart’s content, the crafted gift was an object of moral resistance, a way to recapture their lost worlds and endure until their futures were resurrected.
The words carefully written by each friend and lasting even now, but especially the fourth petal of the heart held Fania’s favourite line ,” Freedom, Freedom, Freedom.” Fania later explains,” My friends wanted to prove that despite all that was inflicted upon us, we could still treat each other with humanity”, adding, “ Their words saved me…”
And even in 1945, when the Red Army approaches and the Nazis empty the concentration camps, putting 60,000 on the roads with only a bowl and a spoon, somehow Fania kept her illicit gift, again hiding it in her armpit as she walked the death marches.
Naysayers, in fact the Jewish supervisor of the girls sorting bullets at the factory who lived through Shoah and interviewed by the filmmaker is adamant that such an incredible subversive feat could not have taken place. Scornful, she underlines ,” Absolutely impossible…one woman in the camps wrote a letter to her husband, and she was hanged… if you deviated one centimetre in rollcall, you were beaten,” she pronounces, indignant. When Leblanc tells her that Fania had carried the heart in her armpit on the death march, she starts to laugh at how ridiculous that would’ve been. She states again, more enraged, that everyone was freezing and it would’ve been impossible to have a hidden an item in her armpit. Turning her head from the camera, even angrier, she maintains,” It’s not a reality.”
The interviewer points out that -in fact -the heart does exist.
Fixated on tracking down Fania’s tablemates, Le Blanc goes to Washington, Red Cross Head Quarters, ,International Tracing Services, Germany ,Cambridge, Washington,Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, Auschwitz Deportee Union, Paris even Buenos Aires. With only the first names of those who signed the heart , the search is complicated. The names Fela, Guta, Helena, Eva, Ruth, Hanka, Mania,Giza and others are discernible still. Even when the leads do not produce results, Leblanc pursues the quest. With the death of her father, Sandy sorting through his papers, unexpectedly comes upon a letter sent fifteen years previously from a Lidia Vago in Israel.
Heidi, continues, “Since everyone was aging, it was hard to know if anyone was still even alive, but this woman in Israel had kept a dossier of women survivors from Auschwitz.” Comparing signatures, they see names align. It is a moment of triumph for Leblanc and Vago. Helena now living in Cannes acknowledges the making of the heart by telephone, but refuses to participate, taking her memories to the grave with her, but Fela, now 86, her remembrances dimming recalls signing and Zlatka in South America contributes,” [we] felt like sisters.” Bronia has now passed away, but Fania is asked to represent her as a kind of grandmother in absentia at her granddaughter’s wedding. Sandy and Fania are welcomed as guests , the family feeling that it was as if their own mother was attending in spirit, reminiscent of one of the girl’s thoughts penned on the little heart back in the camps, “…not dying will be winning.”
And from this remarkable impossible story, a children’s book and the film, a film my friend Heidi had related was so emotional, so breathtaking , particularly as the surviving women met again.
How do we talk about the deep and haunting introspective looks that appear on Sandy’s face as she walks through Auschwitz with her daughter. Or the daughter of Bronia who almost whispers, “ She ( her mother) had the biggest heart for everyone but me,” but told me nothing about the years of imprisonment in Auschwitz. Vivian Rakoff and Helen Epstein have written of the devastating effects on the children of survivors, those who relived their parents’ horrors vicariously. We can observe in Sandy’s face the traumatizing pain as she confronts her mother’s life in Auschwitz and struggles to keep her emotions private, away from the camera that seeks to document and record the trajectory of her mother’s birthday gift so many years ago.
Words. The words in the little heart, incandescent perpetual flames that guide us back to the time of our forbearers, and the unknowable times of terror, when girls were torn from their homes and thrust into hell. We, the observers, can never know the complete narratives, but the words of the heart, the words of the school children in Montreal in Leblanc ‘s film attempt to establish a balance perhaps, providing hope, for the school children have listened and are the living words that will go forward with this terrible story from the past, remembering the little heart made for a birthday .Fania writes”,I read the messages my friends had written. Their words gave me strength and carried me through each day until the war ended , and I was free once again.”
Fania’s Heart written by Anne Renaud, illustrations by Richard Rudnicki,Second StoryPress,2018
The Heart of Auschwitz Film by Carl Leblanc, 2010