Educator and Holocaust survivor Fanny Gelernter dies at 89
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News obituarySurvivor of Kovno Ghetto and Stutthof Concentration Camp

Educator and Holocaust survivor Fanny Gelernter dies at 89

“For how heavy she was in her heart, she had a real light airiness about her.”

After being liberated from the Stutthof Concentration Camp, Fanny Gelernter visited Adolph Hitler’s former “Eagle Nest” conference center. Photo provided by Steve and Jacki Gelernter.
After being liberated from the Stutthof Concentration Camp, Fanny Gelernter visited Adolph Hitler’s former “Eagle Nest” conference center. Photo provided by Steve and Jacki Gelernter.

Courage. Bravery. Strength. Hope.

Those four words summarize the life of Fanny “Francine” Gelernter, who died Dec. 24, according to her daughter-in-law, Jacki Gelernter.

Born in 1932 to a wealthy family that owned chocolate, cigarette and lingerie factories, Gelernter’s early years were lived as an aristocrat in Kovno, Lithuania, her son Steve Gelernter said.

Those idyllic years, spent in her hometown and the beach community of Palanga, Lithuania, where she vacationed with her mother, father and sister, were short-lived.

Kovno’s peace was shattered in 1941 with an invasion by the Soviet Union. The army sent Gelernter’s father to Siberia, where he would die without ever being reunited with his family. The Red Army was pushed east by the Nazis who captured the town in 1942, creating the Kovno Ghetto.

Gelernter lived in the Jewish ghetto until July 1944, when she was sent to the Stutthof Concentration Camp in Stutthof, Poland, with her mother.

In September 1944 Gelernter experienced one of her darkest moments of the war, according to her daughter-in-law.

“They put her on a train to go to Auschwitz on Rosh Hashanah, during the first four days of September,” Jacki Gelernter said. “She was put on a train with others, packed in. They got down there four days later with a bucket in the corner, which gives you a real feel for how little there was for accommodations. Auschwitz was full, so they sent her back in the same train car. For four more days she went back, amongst things that you and I can’t even imagine.”

Fanny Gelernter lived in Bavaria with her mother after being liberated from the camp in 1945, her son Steve said. The pair then reconnected with family members and even managed to recapture some of their wealth.

In 1950, the 18-year-old Fanny Gelernter and her mother immigrated to the United States.

Fanny Gelernter’s photo used to enter the United States. Photo provided by Steve and Jacki Gelernter.

Steve Gelernter said his mother was a trendsetter in America, with an independent streak that influenced the balance of her life. He pointed to her decision to marry his father, Simon.

“Her mother was adamant, saying, ‘He’s a poor Polack, you’re an aristocrat.’ She did not want my father and mother to be married but my mom didn’t care,” Steve Gelernter said.

Jacki Gelernter said her mother-in-law was “an innovator,” noting she worked as a teacher beginning in the 1950s.

“She chose her husband, who had a low-level job, and she wanted to marry him so she ended up teaching and hiring someone to take care of the kids,” Jacki Gelernter said.

Fanny Gelernter spent the next 45 years teaching at the Hebrew Institute, Temple David, Temple Sinai, Parkway Jewish Center and Rodef Shalom, while Simon Gelernter had a 47-year career with Arthur Moser Associates.

Steve Gelernter said he and his sister Maureen enjoyed a typical childhood.

“Two kids in the back of a station wagon, Ocean City every year for vacation with a friend,” he recalled. “They gave us an ideal upbringing.”

His mother, he said, displayed the same strength she needed to survive the Holocaust when another of her children, David Bruce, died before his first birthday. Her husband died in 1997 while skiing in Colorado.

“That was one of the terrible moments for her,” Steve Gelernter said, “because they built their life from nothing, and he was taken from her. She had no way to say goodbye to him.”

Fanny Gelernter was able to weather the dark times, Jacki Gelernter said, because “she had a strength about her. She was tough but at the same time, she was kind.”

Steve Gelernter remembered his mother as strong and fair, recalling his time as one of her students.

“I had to call her Mrs. Gelernter,” he said. “I answered one time, saying ‘Mom.’ She said, ‘You’re right Steven, but it’s Mrs. Gelernter.’ There was no preferential treatment.”

In 2011, at 79, Fanny Gelernter celebrated her bat mitzvah, which she felt was stolen from her by the Nazis and the Holocaust.

Jacki Gelernter said that Fanny Gelernter surprised those in attendance when, during the service, she announced that she was taking part in the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh’s twinning program.

“She said, without any of us knowing, that she’s twinning today with Lubba. She said, ‘Lubba was my friend in the ghetto. We played together, Lubba and I spent time together. When’s Lubba’s brother was sent to the left and Lubba was sent to the right, she went with her brother. I twin today with my friend, Lubba.’”

In 2017, Jacki Gelernter helped create the Walk to Remember at Community Day School’s Gary and Nancy Tuckfelt Keeping Tabs: A Holocaust Sculpture to honor Gelernter, other Holocaust survivors and the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis. The program continued through 2019. It was discontinued in spring 2020 due to the pandemic.

After her bat mitzvah, Fanny Gelernter traveled to Europe with her son, daughter-in-law and grandsons, Max and Eli, visiting her hometown and the concentration camp she didn’t think she would survive.

Fanny Gelernter’s son said that despite living a long and fulfilling life, there were times the memories of the Holocaust haunted her.

The family matriarch privately recounted disturbing images and stories, finding it impossible to shake the memory of a Nazi soldier who ripped a baby from his mother’s arms in the Kovno Ghetto, throwing the infant and allowing a German Shepard dog to grab it out of the air, and the image of a hanged person in Stutthof, left for days as a warning.

“She didn’t like waiting in lines,” Steve Gelernter said. “We had a real problem taking her through airport security, with all the TSA security people. Even Giant Eagle could be a problem.”

“Separating from family was an issue when the TSA wanted to screen someone,” Jacki Gelernter said. “There were times she was glazed over and wasn’t present.”

Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh Director Lauren Apter Bairnsfather said Fanny Gelernter helped her learn how to be trauma-informed in the center’s programming.

“For many Holocaust survivors, certain things are triggers and reminders of that trauma,” Bairnsfather said. “So, we knew that we had to be careful in how we did our programs. That may seem like something we should have been aware of; we really weren’t. So, we knew if we were having police in uniform, we needed to tell the survivors. So, she was a teacher for many years, even when she was not formally a teacher.”

Emmai Alaquiva photographed Fanny Gelernter for the “Optic Voices: Roots” exhibit at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. Photo provided by Emmai Alaquiva.

Fanny Gelernter was photographed by Emmai Alaquiva for the exhibit “OpticVoices: Roots,” displayed at the Holocaust Center in 2019.

Alaquiva said Fanny Gelernter possessed a level of peace he’s only seen in survivors.

“The impression that Miss Fanny left on me was that regardless of what we go through in life’s kerfuffles, there is always light to be found,” he said.

Stories are bridges that connect us to the world, Alaquiva continued. “They either make or break us. Fanny, and so many survivors, helped to make me who I am as an artist. I shall continue to capture these bridges. Thank you, Miss Fanny for showing me a reflection of myself through your journey. May the universe be occupied by the alluring wind of your beautiful soul.”

Jacki Gelernter said that Fanny Gelernter celebrated life in many simple ways.

“She loved to make sure pets had enough water when you went by, she loved butterflies, she was a huge fan of carnations,” Jacki Gelernter said. “For how heavy she was in her heart, she had a real light airiness about her.”

The words courage, bravery, strength and hope summarized the way Fanny Gelernter faced life, Jacki Gelernter said.

“You need courage to do it, bravery to go through with it, strength to get through it and hope for a reason,” she said.

The family is planning a spring celebration in honor of Fanny Gelernter’s life at a time and place to be determined. Email celebratefannyg@gmail for information about the ceremony or to share memories of her. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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