Later today I will be facilitating an online global family event in memory of a remarkable woman who passed away on June 27, 2021, in the Hebrew calendar the 17th of Tammuz. She was a unique woman, who lived 7 months past her 100th birthday, her name was Fanya Brodsky (maiden name, Dunetz), and I am proud to say that she was my aunt. Fanya was also the last remnant of my father's family who were a family of 6 that lived in the small town of "Zhetl" ("Dyatlovo" in Russian), what was then Poland and today, Belarus. They were 6 until the Nazis arrived on June 21, 1942, only 2 survived the treacherous Holocaust, Fanya and my father, Mot'l (Max/Mordechai). Thus after 100 years, Fanya and Mot'l, siblings who held on to each other in heart and in spirit through the most difficult of time, are no longer with us.
Fanya was a familiar figure to former residents of Zhetl, (known affectionately as "Zhetler" in Yiddish), those who survived and those who emigrated before the War. She was a precious and unforgettable woman, thanks to her colorful character, her clever mind, and her infinite ability to communicate with every person in his/her own way and language. Before the Holocaust she managed to finish high school and start teaching, all of which was violently terminated with the arrival of the Nazis in June 1942.
A Sacrifice I will never forget
Thanks to her command of languages, Fanya worked as the secretary of the "Judenrat" in Zhetel during the German occupation – this Judentrat was heroic in initiating and collaborating with the underground to plan the escape of Jews to the forest, an operation that did not succeed, unfortunately. After the massacre of about 2500 Jews on August 6 (including our family members), she was taken with Mot'l and another 200 Jews who were selected as "work worthy" by the Nazis, to the slave labor camp of a larger town called Novogrudok.
After about 9 months, and following the murder of about half of the inmates in the camp (mostly women and children), on May 7, 1943, Fanya identified a guard inside the camp who was from a village close to Zhetl, who knew their family in Zhetl. She managed to persuade him to let her and Mot'l escape under the fence of the camp into the forest. After many attempts, the guard finally agreed but insisted that he would not allow more than two people to flee during a changing of the guard, if more than two would flee, he would open up fire on the fugitives to prevent the escape.
Fanya feared that if it were just she and her brother they would easily get lost in the forest because they did not know the surrounding area, and they were liable to get caught, either by the Nazis or their sympathizers among the villagers of the area. She then decided to give up her place in favor of another prisoner - Michael Kabak - who was a resident of the Novogrudok area, knew the forest and had a hidden gun. In doing so, Fanya was willing to sacrifice her life to give her brother (my father) a chance to survive. How does one express gratitude for such a sublime act?...
My father never forgot his sister's generous and dedicated initiative. Thank God, Fanya managed to survive too, as she later successfully escaped through the amazing tunnel built by Jewish inmates on 26.9.43. She survived the rest of the war in the Belsky partisan camp, where she contracted typhus and barely survived until the day of liberation of the area by the Russian army.
This was not the only time Fanya intervened to save Mot'l from the danger of death during the war. She was two years older and clearly the "planner" and initiator of the two, she was the one who knew how to identify opportunities and connections. She was the reason why my father went to the US after the Holocaust and not to Eretz Israel, as he had planned and dreamed. Fanya had had enough of war and hardship, the British still ruled Palestine, there was still no Jewish State but violence was everywhere. Fanya wanted to take up the option of joining their uncle and aunt in New Jersey, USA. My father was unwilling to part from his sister, the last remnant of his family, and decided with a heavy heart to join her in going to America. As he told us later in life: "I had bought a bicycle and short pants, I was ready to go to Eretz Yisrael, but I figured that I could always find my way there later." And so it was- 30 years later, my father came to Israel with my mother, and what is more surprising is that Fanya also came to live in Israel at the age of 88!
Thinking always for others
Fanya was always there to push my father forward - to do a bachelor's degree and then a master's degree, to take the initiative to advance. She was the woman who supported her family through the decades by means of a home-based business that sold dresses. She did it all from her 13th-floor apartment in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn, a true "bootstrapping" entrepreneur if there ever was one. She would collect dresses from all kinds of places and suppliers in Manhattan and invite women to her home to try them on according to their taste. She knew how to make the customers feel at home: a compliment here, a nice piece of interesting gossip over there, a warm cup of Polish-Russian tea and a cozy feeling of listening to each woman and making her feel important. In the end the women would buy a dress, or two or more, Fanya's reputation was totally word of mouth- this is how the Brodsky family came into being and navigated the years. It was Fanya- her native intelligence, business sense and unforgettable personality that made it all happen.
Fanya was a woman who read literature in several languages that she spoke fluently, she was always surrounded by people, and always opened her home to us nephews, in every way. Fanya always knew how to give "good advice" even if you did not ask for it, I remember times I did not have time to formulate the question and Fanya had already verbalized the answer about what I needed to do!
Even when she arrived in Israel at an advanced age she did not sit on her laurels. She was a central character in the film about the unbelievable tunnel story, she entertained guests in her apartment in her assisted-living flat even at the age of 100, and maintained telephone contact with friends from all over the world. She always knew how to tell a "good" story, spice it up with some "creative complaining", and make the guests smile and laugh.
On a personal level, Fanya was my partner in "Family Research", we sat together and on the phone for days on end, to identify, discover and document relatives across generations, and complete details about the family before and during the war. She had a fabulous memory, remembering the smallest details and stories many years gone by.
Fanya and my father had a special style of "conversations / arguments": she would criticize him for being "too naive and conciliatory", he would get frustrated with her that she did not stop telling stories that were better not told, and did not cease from raising old and unimportant details and claims. And so were the encounters between them, on the phone and face to face, in increasingly louder, and at times explosive tones, straight from the heart to the mouth, all in the kind of homebred Yiddish you don't hear very much anymore. Each of them was more busy and concerned in telling the other what he or she needed to do with their life. All, of course, out of endless love and devotion, with the pervading memory of the tragic disaster always in the background, along with the unyielding commitment to keep trying to improve life for the future.
On the 18 day of Tammuz in the Hebrew calendar, I visited my father's grave for his "Yahrtzeit", his memorial, it was two years to his death. I wanted to tell him that his sister had joined him, that she died two years later, and exactly one day before, the 17th of Tammuz . Something tells me he did not need for me to update him. These people who learned to live life when there was no certainty and so little hope, had an ability to "know" without being told. After 100 years of being a brother and sister to each other, being left alone when all others perished, I believe that even in their deaths they will not part.
Aunt Fanya, in the name of my father, myself and the future generations, and in memory of those who perished for no reason other than their being Jews, I can tell you from the bottom of my heart that I have not forgotten and will continue to tell and pass on the memory of all and how you have touched our lives. And one last time I want to thank-you ... for everything.