The Arty Semite

Friday Film: Teaching the Holocaust to Teenagers

By Michael Kaminer

  • Print
  • Share Share

It sounds like a high-concept Hollywood pitch: Feisty 86-year-old Holocaust survivor meets tough inner-city high-school kids. In fact, a documentary about the indefatigable Fanya Gottesfeld Heller — and her conversations with students at Brooklyn’s “alternative” Pacific High School — airs on PBS affiliates throughout April. Richard Gere narrates “Teenage Witness: The Fanya Heller Story,” partly based on Heller’s 1993 autobiography “Love in a World of Sorrow.” Heller spoke to the Forward’s Michael Kaminer from her Upper East Side apartment — on the day she learned that Pacific High School was slated to close.

Michael Kaminer: What do you hope the film accomplishes beyond what you’ve already achieved with your lectures and book?

Fanya Gottesfeld Heller: By 2020 there won’t be one survivor left. We are the last. I speak for six million martyrs, one and a half million children, for the Gypsies, for everyone who was treated with such cruelty that it’s beyond description. I speak to inner-city kids, people who are not Jewish. I tell them we have to tolerate our differences. With hate, nothing will be achieved.

The Holocaust is so far outside the experience of these kids. How do they respond?

They check me out. Once they feel you’re honest, they listen. They know what sexual abuse is, rape, denigration. I’m a role model to come from ashes, destruction, disaster and made something with myself. I’ve never had a bad experience with them, ever, ever, ever. They want their picture with me, they want to kiss me. It gives them hope. But I just heard the school is being closed. I’m very upset.

Getting Richard Gere attached certainly helped raise the film’s profile. Has there been talk about a Hollywood film of your life?

It they did it in Hollywood, it would probably be cheap. But Richard Gere was very generous. He never wanted a penny from me. I asked how I could repay him, and all he said was “bless me” — he’s a Buddhist. He bowed his head, and said I have some kind of aura around me. He did ask if I could reach out to Muslim kids, but I said I’m not ready.

Could the Shoah happen again?

Yes, sure. But the legacy I want to leave our children is that you don’t have to be a victim, and you don’t have to be a bystander.

What’s next for you? Is there another book on the way?

I have my fingers in a lot of pies. I have another book in my head, but I don’t want to write it. It’s my life after the war, but it’s too private. My kop is still arbit and this is in my kop.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Richard Gere, Michael Kaminer, Film, Holocaust, Documentaries, Fanya Gottesfeld Heller

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • The rose petals have settled, and Andi has made her (Jewish?) choice. We look back on the #Bachelorette finale:
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.