Fanny’s miracle – a hidden child of the Holocaust

Fanny Slonim taught her children to believe in miracles. She can only attribute her survival in Hitler’s France to a miracle – and to the Gentiles who saved her life.

August 8, 2019 17:46
RUBBLE FROM the Nazi era pictured at an exhibition in Berlin

RUBBLE FROM the Nazi era pictured at an exhibition in Berlin. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Fanny Slonim taught her children to believe in miracles. She can only attribute her survival in Hitler’s France to a miracle – and to the Gentiles who saved her life.

Fanny Owyszer’s parents fled Poland for Paris as refugees in 1924. She was born in 1935, the third of a family that would include seven children. Fanny’s father brought his mother, brother and sisters to Paris from Poland. The family was close and lived near one another in Paris. Fanny, just a child, could not conceive of the disaster her family and all Jews in France faced with the German invasion. This was especially so considering that the family were of Eastern European origin and most vulnerable to arrest and deportation to death In Poland.

Most of Fanny’s extended family was rounded up by the Germans in the early years of the war. Fanny’s parents cried in devastation upon the news that members of the family had been arrested. Fanny writes about looking back to those terrible days: “We, the children, did not understand what happened and were terrified.” This was compounded by the fact that while her grandmother was a religious Jew, Fanny’s parents rarely mentioned anything about the family’s Jewish identity. All that she knew was that before the war the family was “happy together, that is all.”

Among Fanny’s earliest memories of the Holocaust was the collapse of her father’s business. He was a tailor who specialized in heavy coats. Strangers, men whom Fanny could not identify, seized her father’s merchandise – all the coats – and he no longer had a livelihood. The Jews of Paris faced dark days ahead.

One day her mother took Fanny and her older sister, Jacqueline, to an office. Her mother left them there. The girls could not stop crying. Fanny remembers this toward the end of 1941 when she was only six years old. The people at the office explained to the two girls that they must leave Paris. A counselor took Fanny and her seven-year-old sister to a village in France and left them at a farm. The female counselor left forged papers with the farmers to present to the authorities to prove the children were not Jews but Christians, but the girls had to move on.

“I remember going in the train full of German soldiers,” writes Fanny, “and I was frightened.” They arrived at another farm and worked in the fields. Despite their fear, there was some humor. “The first day we were in the field, we were terrified because there was a big group of cows coming toward my sister and I, and we had never seen those big animals.” They slept uncomfortably in the barn and were able to find refuge elsewhere. They traveled throughout France seeking refuge but were denounced as Jews and were constantly on the move. The military bombardments made their travels hazardous. They were always guided by counselors and were hidden by many families until their identity was revealed and then they were on the run for their lives.

FANNY AND Jacqueline had never attended school, had never met other children, and could say their family name to no one. Thanks to her sister, Fanny did not forgot her past but had to hide it. “My sister was always taking charge of me,” Fanny remembers. By her eighth birthday she found out that the rest of her family was hiding in France. In 1943, Fanny and her sister were placed with a family in Gouvieux, 35 miles from Paris. “The family was very nice and looked after us with a little food, clothes, and sent us to a convent to go to school. We learned once again that we were forbidden to mention our family name and were to be called only by our given name.”

It was while she was with this family that Fanny learned her mother had a baby boy and both were captured and deported to Auschwitz. The Germans murdered them. The whereabouts of her father were not known except that he was hiding somewhere in France.

Fanny describes Gouvieux as a “big village” four miles from the German headquarters in larger Chantilly. The HQ was housed in a beautiful castle. The Germans used a nearby quarry to fire V1 rockets into England. Raids were conducted by the Allies day and night. The villagers where Fanny and her sister hid were “horrified by the destruction.” She admitted, “We lived in fear all the time, life and death meant nothing anymore.”

Each Sunday the Jewish girls went to church because the woman who hid them played the organ and sang the prayers. Fear was in the air, even in a house of worship. German soldiers would come in the church and sing behind these hidden children who could not even say their family name. Fanny and her sister knew all the Catholic prayers and songs but knew nothing about being Jewish and almost nothing about Judaism. “We prayed to God to be alive and well and happy.”

The war ended. Fanny’s father and most of her immediate family survived. Her father sent her to a Jewish school in the southeast of France where she was placed with children who suffered terrible loss of family. She attended the school for three years “and life came back to me again. I met, at 16 years old, my sisters and brothers. And life continues!”

Fanny is involved in an organization in South Florida made up of people who endured and survived the Holocaust as children. It is always a delight to see her on Shabbat morning at the shul. She concludes her notes of those horrific years: “I do believe in miracles and teach my children to stand firm for what they believe, and learn to be happy with what they have, and to love their family and friends dearly, as one never knows what can happen the next day”

The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.

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