The Persistence of Fania’s Heartby Patricia Goldblatt November 27, 2018
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 your 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 be told it has been donated 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 90-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 already 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 10 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 20th 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 20 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 12 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.
Fania reflects that on December 12, her birthday, that 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, and only in the evening, back in her bunk she opens 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 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.”
From these sentiments we can imagine they revisited in their heads a relaxed clump of laughing, chattering ingénues, ready to set out on their discovery of the world, love interests and delicious endeavours.
The words carefully written by each friend last even now; the fourth petal of the heart held Fania’s favorite 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, even the Jewish supervisor of the girls sorting bullets at the factory who was interviewed by the filmmaker, are adamant that such an incredible subversive feat could not have taken place. Turning her head from the camera, angry, she says, “It’s not a reality.”
The interviewer points out that, in fact, the heart does exist.
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.