Fanya Gottesfeld was born into a traditional Jewish family in Skala, a small village or “Shtetl” in Eastern Galicia, which is located in the Ukraine, during Sukkot. When the Germans entered Skala in the summer of 1941, life immediately became much worse for the Jews there, including the Gottesfeld family - Benjamin, and Charlotte, and their children, Fanya and Arthur. As the eldest child, Fanya, had to go out daily to scavenge for food. On one of these forays, she met Jan, a Ukranian militiaman who began to help and look after the Gottesfelds.
In their desperate efforts to find somewhere safe to hide they approached Sidor Sokolowski, a former employee in the building firm where Benjamin Gottesfeld had worked as an engineer. Sidor took the family in, and Fanya, Arthur and their parents settled into the attic in Sidor’s home. After a suspicious neighbor came snooping around his house, Sidor moved the Gottesfelds to the chicken coop. They had little air and no light and subsisted on whatever meager rations Sidor was able to share with them. Lice and rats were their constant companions. The Gottesfelds hid in the chicken coop for nearly two and a half years.
Following the liberation of Skala by the Russian Army in May 1944 the family moved to Byotm, Poland where Fanya was introduced to Joseph Heller. They were married in 1946, and subsequently lived in several cities throughout Europe. Fanya and Joseph moved to New York in 1960 where Fanya was reunited with her brother Arthur and mother Charlotte.
In March 1996, Yad Vashem recognized Izydor Sokolowski as a Righteous Among the Nations.
In the meantime, the Hellers rebuilt their lives in New York.
Fanya’s commitment to Holocaust education was recognized by the New York State Board of Regents who in 1988 awarded her the Louis E. Yavner Citizen Award in recognition of her contribution to teaching about the Holocaust. She received honorary degrees from Yeshiva University and Bar Ilan University.
Fanya recently reissued her autobiography under the title Love in a World of Sorrow originally entitled Strange and Unexpected Love: A Teenage Girl's Holocaust Memoirs. The book is mandatory reading in many schools and universities. Fanya lectures at universities and conferences to promote further awareness of the Holocaust, speaks to hundreds of inner-city schoolchildren every year, and commissions an annual conference on Holocaust education at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.
Fanya Gottesfeld Heller currently serves on the boards of numerous educational institutions and charitable organizations, many of which focus on Jewish education, feminism, and raising awareness about the Holocaust. She lives in New York City and has three children, eight grandchildren, and eleven great-grandchildren.
Fanya, a good friend of Yad Vashem, serves on the board of the American Society for Yad Vashem. Fanya and her family’s commitment and contribution to Yad Vashem will ensure that the torch of Holocaust education will be passed on for generations to come.
Today, at a moving ceremony in the Yad Vashem Synagogue, Yad Vashem paid tribute to Fanya’s courage, resilience and commitment to Holocaust education.
Avner Shalev, the Chairman of Yad Vashem, spoke about Fanya Gottesfeld Heller as a unique person and praised her courage and candor in sharing her story. He noted that she wanted to understand what makes human beings evil or good, and that she says that there are no answers, only activities that you can do to build up hope. "You're a great educator, and through your art and studies, you've tried to create harmony between nature and human beings."
Fanya's granddaughter Aliza spoke very movingly of her experiences of being Fanya's granddaughter, and over the years gaining a deeper and better appreciation for her grandmother. "She always said that she made no apologies – let the judgments land where they may... Her courage lies in her ability to confront and face that terror every day of her life. She survives every single day. Each and every day she emerges a survivor."
Fanya, teary-eyed after her granddaughter's words, said she was filled with humility and gratitude to be standing here in Jerusalem with her family. "In 1981, I was here for the first survivor’s conference, together with my late husband. We made a vow. We would do what we can for Yad Vashem. I came today to fulfill my vow."