The landlord and the Holocaust

I’ve been thinking about those six degrees of separation that have become so notorious in a world of billions of people and even more billions past.

Years ago, Sally, Doris and I lived in a building on New York City’s Upper West Side. Our landlord, like many landlords, was disliked by nearly all of his tenants. Sally may have been an exception, and her diplomacy helped keep our rent at a reasonable level. I, on the other hand, was afraid of the man. I’ll never forget the night he interrupted a tenants’ meeting in the first floor hallway, pummeling the air with a fist, his face red, shouting “Communists, Communists.” Being a callow and self-righteous product of the 1960s, I looked at him with a mixture of fear, anger and pity—poor, rabid right-winger that he was.

Over the years, Sally and Doris have kept in touch and the other night Doris telephoned to tell Sally about a remarkable program she’d just seen on public television (the same public television, current day right-wingers are trying to end). A Holocaust survivor, a woman who had grown up in a small village in the Ukraine, told a horrific story of how Christian neighbors hid her and her family from Nazi death squads for two years—first in their attic, then their barn and finally in a lice-infected chicken coop in the woods where they hadn’t enough air, light or water, and where there was never enough to eat. She had been a teenager-in-love with one of their rescuers. Before their ordeal ended, her father was killed.

Somehow or other, our young heroine and her family found hope when she married a man named Joseph Heller and they made their way to America.

This was used in the PBS program. I believe its a photo of Fanya and Joseph Heller.

That was what I remembered of the story when Sally repeated it to me. Except that Joseph Heller was our landlord. “The times I talked to him, I never asked him about himself,” Sally said. I agreed. I had never even been curious about the red-faced Jew with the accent. Where was he from? What had his life been like? Once, Sally related, she praised a building super to him: “He’s a good man,” she said. “All the good people are dead,” muttered Joseph Heller.

The story stayed with me. Sally doesn’t have a computer, but I do and I was soon combing the Internet with the few words I had: “Nazis,” “Ukraine,” “woods,” “Heller,” “PBS.” The Internet is one of those places where, with a little patience, the six degrees of separation are laid out for us, degree-by- degree, and we discover how interconnected we really are. Joseph Heller died in 1986. I remember that—not the actual year but an approximate one. His wife, as it turns out, was Fanya Gottesfeld Heller. Heller was wrong: all the good people were not dead.

Fanya Gottesfeld Heller

The mother of three children, grandmother of eight, and great grandmother of eleven more, she is the astonishing writer of a book about her life and survival in that Ukrainian village—originally titled Strange and Unexpected Love: A Teenage Girl’s Holocaust Memoirs, and now retitled Love in a World of Sorrow. Her writings have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and Jewish newspapers nationwide; she speaks regularly at schools and other institutions. The television program, by the way, is called “Teenage Witness: The Fanya Gottesfeld Heller Story.”

Fanya has a Master’s degree in psychology from The New School for Social Research and has also studied art history, philosophy and literature. With her husband’s money, she helps sponsor an annual conference on Holocaust education at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, and in 1998 established The Fanya Gottesfeld Heller Center for the Study of Women in Judaism at Bar-Ilan University.

Six degrees of separation.

I’m so glad I got a chance to get reacquainted with Joseph Heller.

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