Fania’s extraordinary Holocaust story

At 100, Dunetz Brodsky still considers herself a partisan

Fania (Fanny) Dunetz Brodsky turned 100 on November 15, 2020 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Fania (Fanny) Dunetz Brodsky turned 100 on November 15, 2020
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
This story will be a chapter in the author’s upcoming book, The Tunnel People on the Novogrudok Tunnel Escape – the most successful escape of the Shoah – and the amazing stories of the escapees. Written primarily from anecdotes and reminiscences related by Fania (Fanny) Dunetz Brodsky and her brother, Mordechai (Motl) Dunetz, during the course of their lives, it is published here in tribute to Motl, who died on July 21, 2019, and in celebration of Fanny, who turned 100 on November 15, 2020.
Fania Dunetz Brodsky’s life exemplifies the fierce loyalty, courage and willingness to risk their lives for one another that characterized her family. Born in the Belarus town of Zhetl in 1920 to Yoel David and Esther Basia née Belski, Fania was the second of four children. Her sister Shifra was born in 1915, brother Motl in 1922, and younger brother Anshel (Alik) in 1932.
In addition to Fania’s parents and siblings, the family home on Slonim Street was shared with her paternal grandparents, Shlomo Zalman Dunetz and Sarah Rochel née Levitt. Shlomo Zalman, who was born in Bialystok, was the grandson of Yehuda Dunetz, the Av Beit Din (presiding judge) of the Rabbinical Court of Slonim. In recognition of this honor, the family became known as “Dunetz,” an acronym of the Hebrew words dayan tzedek (righteous judge).
One of the first members of the Hovevei Zion organizations, pioneering proponents of Jewish settlement in Palestine in the early 1880s, Shlomo Zalman is said to have rarely been at home as he traveled from city to city collecting for Zionist causes, including the Jerusalem-based Etz Chaim Yeshiva.
After an earlier temporary stay in Palestine, on the second day of Hanukkah, 1929, Shlomo Zalman left once again for the Holy Land, this time to die. Living in poverty in the Mahaneh Yehuda neighborhood near the Etz Chaim Yeshiva he had faithfully supported, Shlomo Zalman’s wish to depart this world in Jerusalem was fulfilled on December 13, 1932. His good deeds and idealism were lauded in an obituary published by the religious-Zionist newspaper Netiva. Shlomo Zalman remains an important figure in the life of Fania, who mentions him often to this day.
Sarah Rochel Dunetz, on the other hand, had been as disinterested in her husband’s Zionist activities as he was in the grocery store she ran on the left side of the house, three steps down. There, for over 50 years, she sold herring, flour, salt, sugar, cigarettes and more.
On market day, usually Tuesdays, peasants would come to shop, parking their horses and wagons in the backyard of the family home. Sarah Rochel is said to have been very energetic, stubborn and resolutely determined to have her own way. She died on September 18, 1939. Local townspeople are reported to have said that “she was so smart that she knew when to die.”
Yoel David and Esther Basia’s general store, chock full of dry goods, shoes and textiles, stood to the right of his mother’s grocery. The entire extended family lived in the back of the house, whose living room was perched between the two stores. Yoel David, referred to as David, was born in Zhetl in 1892. Serving in the Russian Army from at least 1907 (as attested by a photo he sent home), he was captured during World War I and expelled to Germany from 1914-1918. During this time, the prisoner-of-war performed farm work, painted barns and was also employed as an interpreter.
Esther Basia, known as Basia, was born in 1890 in the nearby town of Meytchet (Molchad). Fania recalls having spent every summer in Meytchet with her maternal grandparents. Fania’s eldest sister Shifra is remembered as a child who played the mandolin and enjoyed handicrafts as a student in Zhetl’s Yiddish-speaking Sholom Aleichem School. Around the age of 18, Shifra left for Vilna to study nursing in the TOZ Jewish Nursing School.
When Jewish Polish citizens from Germany were evicted across the border to Poland in 1938, Shifra volunteered to work in a refugee camp. She was soon chosen to escort a group of unaccompanied children (kindertransport) from the refugee camp to the relative safety of Britain. Despite the danger, Shifra insisted on first returning home to Zhetl to part from her family before ushering the children to British shores. There she became trapped by the incursion of the Germans, and took a job as a nurse in the local hospital.
On July 23, 1941, she learned that all men between 16 and 60 had been ordered to report to the marketplace. Running to the scene, she found 120 of the town’s most prominent men had been selected by the Germans for “work” in Novogrudok and ordered to board the waiting trucks. As she heard her father’s name called, Shifra fearlessly dared to beg the German officer in charge to release her father. When a Polish woman intervened, accused her of being a Communist, and suggested that she be taken instead of her father, the officer heeded this advice and ordered Shifra onto the truck in place of her father. Two days later, on the first day of the nine-day period of mourning during the Jewish month of Av, Shifra, along with 119 men, was massacred in a mass grave in the nearby hamlet of Skrydlevo.
As witnessed decades later by the author, this mass grave is shockingly close (only several yards) to pre-war houses that continue to stand along the path to the killing field. Yoel David was ultimately murdered in Zhetl’s second mass slaughter on August 6, 1942, together with Esther Basia and son Antzel (Alik), only 10 years old at the time of his death. Fania and Motl were left alone.
At that time, Fania had graduated from the prestigious Adam Mickiewicz High School in Novogrudok and completed her first year of studies in Bialystok’s Teachers Seminary.
Among her classmates was Dr. Boris Ragula, who was to become an interpreter to the German Regiment Commissar Traub, don a German uniform and organize a Belorussian army to fight the partisans. Fania suspects that it was Ragula who later arranged for two of their common classmates to “visit” her at the entrance to the Forced Labor Camp, bringing her a bit of food.
Fania had also chalked up two years of experience from 1939-41 as a Russian-language teacher in her former Polish elementary school, a job she had been assigned to during the Russian occupation, despite her lack of fluency in Russian. She attributes her surprising success in this job to her father’s nightly Russian-language tutoring.
In essence, her knack for languages became Fania’s key to survival. Fluent in high-school German, at some point after the Nazi invasion she was made secretary to the Judenrat (Jewish Council) of Zhetl, renowned for organizing resistance activities. In the mass murder that took the lives of her parents and brother, Fania was spared death and assigned as a secretary to the Novogrudok Forced Labor Camp by virtue of her knowledge of German. Here she sat in a booth outside the camp, primarily responsible for recording supplies that came through the gate. Alone with the powerful Camp Commander Reuter on several occasions, Fania once dared to ask him why he engaged in murder. His response: “An order is an order.” At another point in time, Fania was absent while coupons for double rations were distributed. Knowing that her non-receipt of tickets for extra rations spelled certain death in an approaching slaughter, she fearlessly approached Reuter to ask that he provide them. This was a commander questioned by no man, whose ferocious cruelty included hurling infants from the roof of the camp. Yet he gave her the lifesaving tickets she requested.
A Dunetz family picture circa 1960 (courtesy)A Dunetz family picture circa 1960 (courtesy)
Fania’s brother Motl’s survival was due, at least in part, to his mother Basia’s clear thinking, even in her last moments of life as she lay face down in Zhetl’s New Cemetery before being executed. In the chaotic shouting that prevailed, Motl recalled that German soldiers were heard to call for electricians, shoemakers and other professionals needed for the Nazi war machine. Basia immediately advised Motl in a whisper to present himself as a carpenter, a profession for which he actually had a certificate. Thus, Fania’s only surviving sibling was assigned along with her to the Novogrudok Forced Labor Camp.
Here Fania employed her trademark daring to obtain extra food for herself and Motl. She developed a scheme by which Motl, now working in the labor camp section that manufactured wooden shoes for the Germans, supplied her with scraps of wood from the workshop. She then secretly transferred these scraps to fellow inmate Sara Lidski, a seamstress and childhood friend from Zhetl. Sara would use these purloined pieces of wood as handles for pocketbooks that she sewed from scraps of material in the dressmaking workshop. When Fania would boldly “sell” these creations to a German officer as gifts for his relatives in Germany, she would be given a piece of bread. Half the bread went to Sara, while the other half Fania shared with Motl.
The strong bond between Fania and Motl would last a lifetime. Motl would always recall how his escape from the forced labor camp was the result of Fania’s bravery, resilience and willingness to give up her life for his. In February, 1943, Fania was approached by Josef Varzan, a local camp guard who had known of her family in Zhetl before the war. He offered her the priceless opportunity to escape with one other person she could choose. Fearing that neither she nor Motl could successfully navigate the way to the Bielski partisan detachment in the forest, she requested that they be joined by a Novogrudok native who was familiar with the terrain. When the guard refused, Fania made the supreme sacrifice in choosing a Novogrudok native, brother of tunnel escapee Matus Kabak, to take her place and lead Motl to safety. Willing to pay with her life to save her younger brother, Fania was keenly aware of the punishment she could expect should Motl’s absence be discovered. With family members held collectively responsible for one who escaped, Fania recalls how a mother and father were shot at rollcall when their son failed to appear after fleeing the camp.
According to Fania, on the dark, stormy night of September 26, 1943, 240 inmates took part in the breakout from the tunnel, which she estimates to have been 275 yards long and only 24 inches high. Following her own successful escape, Fania’s journey toward the distant Bielski partisan detachment was guided by the loving hand extended to her in the darkness by Henia Yarmovski, a Novogrudok native and the mother of Fania’s friend and classmate Sonia. The two, together with an elderly man who also escaped from the tunnel, took refuge in the home of Baptist Christian farmers who had been pre-war customers of the Yarmovski mill. The tale of the farmers’ kindness, the chicken they cooked, and the pillow they gave her for the hayloft accommodations is one of the few wartime accounts Fania would relate to her children. Thanks to the family’s son’s careful directions to the Bielski detachment deep in the Naliboki Forest, the three safely reached their destination.
Yet here Fania discovered that Motl had left the otriad to join the Zhetl Partisans in the Lipiczanska Forest. She then became a malbush, a term used to describe those without arms and without prestige. As an unmarried woman, bereft of a man to protect her and bring back provisions from hunting expeditions, she had an especially difficult life in the forest. Even so, Fania prides herself on her refusal to attach herself to a man for the sake of survival, as did many of the other single women.
Fania recalls sharing her zemlyanka dugout with, among others – Batia Rabinowitzm, Hirsh Patzovski, Chaim and Perla Ostashinski, Pesia Mayevski, Lyuba Epshtein of Zhetl, Raisl Wolkin of Wsielub, Sima and Lionke Portnoj, 16-year-old Eshka Levine and her father of Novogrudok, Frieda Slutsky Sklar and her husband Yitzhak of Lida, and a couple from Naliboki and their grown son who later succumbed to tuberculosis in the otriad.
Assigned the role of a nurse who “treated” patients without any supplies or medicine, Fania later contracted typhus. She remained alone and comatose for six weeks in the zemlyanka which served as the “hospital” in which she worked. A photograph taken soon after liberation bears witness to her kerchiefed head, as she had lost all her hair during the illness.
After liberation, Fania returned to Zhetl. In an undoubtedly emotional meeting, she was reunited with Motl in the market square. Two years had passed since they’d last stood there with their parents and little Anshel for the August 6th selection that separated them forever. Returning to their former home, Fania and Motl found it occupied by Poles who were “kind enough” to allow them to live in one of the rooms. After selling the home for a winter coat, Fania left for Baranovich, determined to complete her studies to qualify as a teacher despite the fact that she was the only Jew in the school.
With Fania and Motl both repatriated to Poland, they registered in Lodz with the Jewish Central Committee listing their address as 88 Piotrkowska Street. After a short period in Berlin’s Schlachtensee Displaced Persons Camp, in April 1946, Motl and Fania were transferred to the newly-created Eschwege Displaced Persons Camp in a former German Air Force Base in the Frankfurt district of the American Zone. This camp was characterized by the revitalization of Jewish life among its residents. By April 1947, it contained a kindergarten and elementary schools (where Fania taught Hebrew) as well as high schools. Undzer Hofenung, “Our Hope,” the first Yiddish newspaper to be published in Germany after the war, was founded in the camp by none other than Motl. This Zionist paper was printed by Germans in transliterated Yiddish with Latin letters, as Yiddish or Hebrew linotype was no longer available.
In 1947, Fania married Tzunia (Getzel) Brodsky of Kremenetz, a survivor who had lost his entire family. She then joined him in the Windsheim Displaced Persons Camp in Bavaria where Tzunia was a Jewish camp administrator and Fania began working as a kindergarten teacher. Tired of war, Fania overruled Tzunia’s strong desire to immigrate to Israel and insisted on their applying for immigration to the United States. On October 2, 1949, Fania, Tzunia and Motl sailed to New York aboard the USAT General Stewart, at the time an army transport ship. Having looked forward to being reunited with family in the New York area, Fania still recalls her humiliation when a relative, fearful of contracting lice, forced her to shower at a neighbor’s house before allowing her into her own home.
The couple initially settled in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn where Fania first worked in a factory and Tzunia as a textile cutter. Moving to the then-upscale neighborhood of Flatbush in the early 1950s, both became naturalized American citizens on March 29, 1955, at which time Fania officially became Fanny and Tzunia (Getzel) became George. During the early years, Fania was primarily a housewife raising her two children, the author (namesake of Fania’s mother Esther Basia) born in 1952, and Steven, born in 1957.
In 1964, Fania, Tzunia and children moved to the Brighton Beach area. Although Fania had obtained her teaching certificate in Europe, her responsibilities at work and home left no time for her to complete the requirements for an American teaching license. When Tzunia suffered a heart attack in 1971, he was unable to continue his heavy physical work in textiles. Ever resilient, Fania enlisted Tzunia’s help in turning her small home business of selling women’s dresses into the mainstay of the family’s livelihood.
Fania has always stressed the importance of education. Steven holds a degree in psychology, and lives with his wife in Pennsylvania. The author, born in 1952, holds a doctorate in social work with specializations in immigration and resettlement, as well as with families of children with special needs. Living in Israel since 1986, she resides in Jerusalem with her husband Meir, a geographical historian and her daughter Shiran, a clinical pharmacist. Her married son, Yanai, a former commander in the IDF, is the father of Fania’s great-granddaughter.
In 2008, after being widowed for 12 years, 88-year-old Fania joined her daughter and grandchildren in Israel. Here she was reunited with Motl, who had moved with his family from New York to Israel in 1978. Extremely proud of the little brother she saved during the war, Fania glowed in his achievements as an educator and Yiddish journalist. After working in Jewish education in the US, Motl’s far-reaching activities in Israel included serving as director of two departments of the Education Ministry while continuing to write for the Yiddish newspaper, The Forward.
As of this writing, Fania lives in a senior residence in Jerusalem. She continues to take Hebrew lessons and is much loved by the other residents. She is frequently visited by members of the second and third-generation descendants from Zhetl who come to hear her story as well as the stories of their parents and grandparents.
As one of the last tunnel escapees to remain alive, Fania Dunetz Brodsky still proudly refers to herself as a partisan.