FSU Seminar

Vilnius, Lithuania and
Minsk, Belarus

The Hornstein-BGI FSU Seminar is an immersive, transformative learning opportunity for students in their second year of study.

It is carried out in partnership with the Brandeis Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry and made possible in part with support from the Genesis Philanthropy Group. 

Hornstein students visit Fania Brantsovsky, FSU Seminar 2016

A Different Type of Survivor—
 Remembering the Holocaust
 in the FSU

By Teri McGuire

As twelve American guests crammed into Fania Brantsovsky’s living room in Vilnius, Lithuania, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion. The intimate space was covered with evidence of Fania’s life: books, artwork, and pictures… so many pictures.

Fania Brantsovsky, a small but somehow sturdy looking old woman was not sitting down. Instead, she rushed around the front hall into her apartment, greeting everyone and moving around furniture to ensure everyone had a place to sit. Every attempt by a more able-bodied individual to assist her was ignored, as Fania proved that she was stronger than any of us gave her credit for.

Although, as my grandmother would say, Fania is “no spring chicken,” we shouldn’t have been surprised by her abilities. After all, we came to visit Fania Brantsovsky, a Holocaust survivor and partisan. A woman who would later tell us a story of true bravery and resilience, a woman who has seen horrors and fought back against injustices that we could all barely imagine.

In our short time spent with Fania, we met, through her narrative, her family and the many individuals who contributed to her survival during the war, whether it be fellow partisans, or strangers who aided her in times of desperate need.

I was taken by Fania and her story, and felt incredibly blessed that I was able to hear the story directly from her, an opportunity I know generations to come will never be able to share.

The emotions I felt as I sat in her living room were not only the result of her heartbreaking past and the struggles she had once endured, they also stemmed from knowing that this woman was still battling with her surroundings.

In preparation for visiting Lithuania, I had researched Fania to better understand her past, only to discover that her present is also quite interesting. Passionate about Jewish education and Holocaust memory, Fania currently acts at the librarian of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, and speaks openly with tourists and other interested parties about her life during World War II, or as it is referred to in the region, The Great Patriotic War.

Shockingly to me, Fania’s work has been met with pushback, which stems from the theory of the Double Genocide, a narrative that has been supported by the governments of Lithuania and surrounding countries and which accuses those aligned with the Soviet Army during the war, like Fania, of also committing genocidal acts equal to the horrific Nazi regime.

Because of this developing theory, Fania has been attacked by the media, and a warrant for her arrest became public by individuals who wanted to sentence her for committing a massive slaughter. With no evidence or truth to the allegations, Fania lives safely in her home, yet the discourse of Double Genocide still remains strong.

Speaking form my own experience as the granddaughter of two Holocaust survivors, I know that there is more than one “type” of survivor.

My grandparents, George Pollack Z’’L and Dora Tessler, were married for 65 years before my grandfather passed away this past December, yet their stories as survivors are vastly different. No two stories of survival are the same, and the way in which survivors cope with their memories and experiences also vary a great deal.

There is the category of survivors that find it unbearable to share their story, and there are those who feel a constant need to share their experience with others. There are the survivors who cling to their religion and those who no longer see a world in which G-d could possibly exist.

Survivors come in all shapes and sizes, like all people, they are not a homogenous population. They are not numbers; they are human beings, with their own unique sense of self.

I know all survivors are different, yet, I was so taken aback by meeting Fania that I cognitively placed her in a category all of her own. It was only upon my return home that I figured out why.

I have met dozens of Holocaust survivors in my lifetime, yet unlike Fania, all of these survivors either lived in North America or Israel. Many of them had never even returned to Europe since finding a better life in one of the hubs of world Jewry.

My grandparents, for example, never returned to Riskava, Czechoslovakia or Sighet, Romania after they immigrated to America by way of Canada. My Grandmother is consistent in insisting that she has no desire to visit her beloved hometown, and would rather I not venture there myself.

“There’s nothing left there. It’s not the beautiful place I know and love, and I would rather just remember it by the pristine memories of my childhood,” she says.

In America in 2016, most Holocaust survivors are grandparents and great grandparents. They are individuals who, although greatly impacted by their past, have found a niche for themselves amongst American Jewry. Some live quiet lives to themselves, some speak to classrooms and events about their experiences, and regardless of their trauma, they can feel safe, comfortable, and respected when they share their story and enjoy the life they have established for themselves.

The same cannot be said for Fania, who walks daily by important landmarks and reminders of the Holocaust, who acts as a sole truth-teller and transmitter of knowledge, and who is still being attacked for speaking out and sharing her story, who has endured all of her life, yet experiences no reprieve. Fania is the type of survivor who must struggle to survive, just like the Jewish community of Lithuania as a whole.

Prior to meeting Fania, I thought I understood the importance of Holocaust memory and the roles survivors played in it, yet Fania opened my eyes to greater issues and has inspired hours of thought and contemplation.

How can I, a Jewish professional leader with a particular passion for the continuity of Holocaust memory and education, incorporate my experience with her into my own life and the lives of others?  How can I ensure that Fania’s teachings and memory live on once she is no longer with us? How can I, as an American, even begin to understand the Holocaust narrative of countries that differ so greatly from my own?

These are not easy questions, but ones that are of great value to my learning and growth as a leader. I am so grateful to Fania, BGI, and Hornstein for allowing me the opportunity to explore them.

Teri McGuire with Fania Brantsovsky

Fania Brantsovsky (left) accepts a Certificate of Appreciation from the Hornstein Program and student Teri McGuire.