As a survivor of the Stutthof concentration camp, Fanny Gelernter still becomes distraught at certain sights and sounds: trains, crying children, the large smokestacks at the Waterfront.
But she is no shrinking violet. After more than 40 years of teaching Hebrew and Judaics to countless youth through- out the area, she will be ascending the bima next month at Rodef Shalom Congregation for the first time as a bat mitzva.
“I’m kind of getting cold feet,” she admitted with a slight grin. “But I’m sure it will be fine.”
Gelernter was liberated from Stutthof, near Gdansk, Poland, when she was 13 years old.
Although a bit nervous about her aliyah and Torah reading, she is mostly excited to have the opportunity to finally celebrate becoming a bat mitzva.
“In my youth, I didn’t have a chance to do it,” she said.
Gelernter was born in Kovno, Lithuania to an “influential” Jewish family, she said. When the Nazis invaded their town during World War II, her father was sent to Siberia. She never saw him again.
Gelernter’s older sister escaped to Mongolia, where she lived until her death in 2004, but Gelernter and her mother were eventually rounded up and sent to a ghetto near the Slobotka yeshiva. She lived for two years in a bunker
alongside the president of the ghetto, but when Nazis threw a grenade into the bunker, everyone was forced out. Men were taken to the Dachau concentration camp, and women were sent to Stutthof.
Once in Stutthof, “they lined us up,” Gelernter recalled. “It was not pleasant. We had to give away our suitcases. They shaved our hair. They took our clothes and gave us striped uniforms. Then they separated the children from the adults.” While many prisoners of the camp were sent to Auschwitz to be murdered, Gelernter and her mother were lucky.
Though separated from each other, they lived at Stutthof for three years, until they were liberated in 1945. They were then sent onaboatto Germany, where they remained until 1950, when they were finally permitted to immigrate to the United States.
Gelernter has been an important part of the Pittsburgh Jewish community for many years, taking 7th and 8th grade students from local synagogues to the Holocaust Center of Greater Pittsburgh, as well as teaching religious school.
When her youngest grandson, Eli, became a bar mitzva three years ago, Gelernter was inspired to get busy planning her own.
“I was going to wait until I was 80,” Gelernter said, “but then my daughter-in-law (Jacki Savage Gelernter) said, ‘Why wait?’ I know about my friends — some are starting to get infirm. Some have passed away. Who knows what a year will bring? We never know our expiration date.”
Although Gelernter’s birthday is February 1, she decided to wait to have her celebration in June, hoping for better weather. She will be hosting an oneg Friday night, June 3, at Rodef Shalom, a kiddish lunch on Saturday, June 4, and a private party Saturday night at LeMont.
But Gelernter’s celebration will not end after the parties are over. On July 26, she and several family members will embark on what has become known as “the Fanny tour.”
“Fanny hasn’t been back to Lithuania since pre-war,” said Savage Gelernter. “I asked her, ‘do you want to visit Kovno?’ She told me she didn’t think she would recognize it, but said she would like to visit her family’s summer home in Palanga, a beach resort on the Baltic Sea in Lithuania.”
The itinerary of the trip soon fell into place. The family will begin its trip in Israel, and will continue to Kovno and Palanga, as well as the concentration camp where Gelernter was imprisoned—a special request by Gelernter.
“I will say kaddish there,” Gelernter said. “I will bring stones. And I want to take some earth back and bury it at Tem- ple Sinai Cemetery.”
Despite her horrific memories, Gelernter recognizes the importance of keeping her story, and those of other Holocaust victims, alive, so that such a travesty will never happen again.
“What I do now is talk to young people,” she said. “Not just Jewish people. Last time, I talked to 40 young people in grades 10 and 11. I ask them to be tolerant and not to judge people by their religion, or how they look.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)