Fanya Heller shares story with Milken students

Dr. Fuller
Photo courtesy of Ms. Elda Dagan.

Blake Senet


On Tuesday, March 9, Milken seniors were given the privilege of learning about and meeting holocaust survivor Fanya Heller. Prior to the arrival of the special guest, the students viewed the documentary “Teenage Witness: The Fanya Gottesfeld Heller Story,” which chronicled the life of Heller through interviews, wartime footage, and old family photos while depicting her relaying her story to urban high school youths.

“The film was really touching and inspiring.  I will definitely remember it for a very long time,” Michael Venit ’11 said.

Heller was introduced by her daughter, Jaclyn Heller, a Milken board member, who spoke about her mother’s many accomplishments and honors. Heller has three children, eight grandchildren, one of whom attended Milken, and currently eleven great grandchildren. However, these many generations would not have been possible without her strength and perseverance as a teenage girl from a small Ukranian village who evaded the Gestapo and Nazi death squads to survive. Heller was characterized by both the film and her daughter as having an unquenchable intellectual curiosity and vivid imagination. Although she was not able to pursue her passion and study medicine due to Nazi persecution, Heller continued studying and learning when she came to the US.  She published her memoir Strange and Unexpected Love: A Teenage Girl’s Holocaust Memoir which is part of the curriculum at some of the most prestigious universities in the nation. Because she did not refrain from gruesome details, Heller was one of the few survivors who spoke candidly about the Holocaust. She is also one of the first survivors to speak about women’s issues.

“I couldn’t believe the horrors and terror she endured. She is such an incredible individual,” Michel Namm ’11 said.

Narrated by Richard Gere, the film “Teenage Witness” debuted on PBS in 2010. The interesting aspect of the film was Heller’s ability to relate to inner city high school students, many of whom she still keeps in contact with.  After the film, the seniors asked Heller a variety of questions. In response to the questions, Heller answered honestly about her sacrifices, regrets, loves, and desires during wartime persecution.

“She responded to the questions with unbelievable energy and knowledge. You could tell this woman had endured something terrible, but her strength drove her to tell her story,” Brandon Asherian ’11 said.