For 2-1/2 years, her family hid from the Nazis in a stifling dugout, too low to stand upright, too cramped to move, dependent on a Polish farmer for food, water, and protection.
A half-century later, 73-year-old Fanya Gottesfeld Heller was reunited Tuesday with her protector’s daughter, Irena Sidorovna.
“Thank you,” Heller, who now lives in New York City, said in Polish as her eyes filled with tears. “You helped save our lives.”
Although providing refuge to Jews was punishable by death, Sidorovna’s father, Izydor Skowlowski, hid Heller, her parents, and her younger brother, Arthur, on his farm from 1942 to 1944. Skowlowski, who died a decade ago, was honored for his heroism during an emotional ceremony Tuesday at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial.
Sidorovna, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief, laid a wreath of pink flowers in the memorial’s Hall of Remembrance and unveiled an inscription listing her father as one of the “Righteous Among Nations.”
“I hope the horrors of war will never happen again,” she said.
The Skowlowskis’ farm was in Trojca, Poland, on territory seized by the Soviet Union in 1939 and made part of Ukraine. Heller’s family lived in the nearby town of Skala.
After the Nazi occupation of Ukraine in 1942, Skowlowski, who had worked on a building project with Heller’s father, hid the Jewish family - first in his attic, then in a barn and finally in a dugout next to the chicken coop, behind a false wall.
The dugout was too low to stand upright, Heller remembered. “There was no air, no light and no water.”
The family was totally dependent on Skowlowski for food and protection.
Sidorovna, then 6, was told that Heller’s “parents were her uncle and aunt, and Arthur and I her cousins, but that it was a big secret,” Heller wrote in her book, “Strange and Unexpected Love, A Teenage Girl’s Holocaust Memoirs.”
The child was warned “she mustn’t tell anyone - not the priest, and not at school,” Heller wrote.
And Sidorovna “never did. On only one occasion did I hear her speak of us - to Rex, the family’s German shepherd: ‘Don’t tell,’ she warned the dog, ‘or I’ll slice you up and put you in the soup.”’ On Tuesday, Sidorovna recalled her childhood fears about what would happen to her family if the authorities found out they were hiding Jews. She recalled a search of her house - but the secret hideaway was not found.
“I knew that it was very difficult to save the Gottesfeld family, but also I knew that my family did their best to do this, to save the family of my dear Fanya,” she said.
The two women sat together Tuesday, holding hands and occasionally whispering to each other in Polish, as they listened to speeches by Yad Vashem officials in the Garden of the Righteous, among stone walls inscribed with thousands of names of non-Jews who saved Jews.
“In the name of the Jewish people, we are here to thank you,” Yad Vashem Executive Chairman Avner Shalev told Sidorovna.
Heller, whose father was killed after the liberation of Ukraine, said her family tried to find the Skowlowskis after the war, but failed. In recent years, she learned that Sidorovna - the last surviving member of the family - was alive and living in Skala, Heller’s hometown.