The story of a heart-shaped birthday card that’s become an eternal symbol of resilience among Jewish women Holocaust survivors
At eight years old, Sandy Fainer played pretend as Kathy Gregory, one of her favourite characters from the 1950s American sitcom, Leave it to Beaver. One day, after watching an episode involving Kathy’s suspicions of being adopted, Sandy snooped around her house for clues to crack a similar “mystery,” as she noticed having no photographs of her with extended family. Little did she know, she would discover a piece of history hidden in her mother’s underwear drawer — and it wasn’t adoption papers.
In the palm of her hands was a heart-shaped birthday card that her mother, Fania Fainer, received for her 20th birthday on Dec. 12, 1944, when she was imprisoned in Auschwitz-Birkenau, working at the Union Werke munitions factory.
The birthday card, known as The Heart of Auschwitz, has been displayed at the Montreal Holocaust Museum since 1988. A facsimile has also made its way to The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.
The artifact’s story has been featured in various forms of media around the world: the documentary The Heart of Auschwitz by Carl Leblanc, and the award-winning novel Paper Hearts, written by Meg Wiviott.
This was no ordinary gift.
“It was the only material object that she survived [the Holocaust] with,” said Sandy. “She didn’t think it was of any interest to anybody else. But to her, it was very precious.… She kept it with her most intimate things.”
As a child, Sandy remembered being admonished for fooling around with it. “Just get your little hands off that, it’s not a toy!” she recalled her mother exclaiming.
But for Sandy, the heart-shaped birthday card’s preservation is the most astonishing part of its journey — a “miracle,” as she put it. It’s a representation of women Holocaust victims’ solidarity and her mother’s reminder of hopefulness when she felt anguished.
Before World War II, Fania was living in Białystok, Poland. On Sept. 1, 1939, her life changed drastically, as the Nazi regime occupied her town.
She became a target for her ethnic identity, being labeled as the “Jew” with a yellow star badge; a dehumanizing Nazi tactic used to segregate, stigmatize, and potentially deport the Jewish population of Europe to death camps.
One day, Fania went out in public without wearing her badge and was identified by a boy. She was arrested by a group of German soldiers and stripped from her family for life.
She was initially sent to the Stutthof forced labor camp, but was later deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she worked in the Union Werke munitions factory.
During her time at the factory, she befriended other young women workers, such as Zlatka Pitluk.
According to the Montreal Holocaust Museum, Pitluk was born in Pruzhany, Poland in 1924. In January of 1943, the 19 year old found herself imprisoned in Auschwitz, and later transferred to work in the munitions factory.
When Fania’s birthday came around, Pitluk planned to make her a card and a cake out of material and food found in the factory, along with the help of 19 other women workers.
The women stole materials at night for Pitluk and kept it protected— a life-threatening act of resistance they took to honour Fania’s special day, despite many not even knowing her.
The card was signed with various hopeful wishes in Polish, Hebrew, German and French.
“Freedom, freedom, freedom, wishing on the day of your birthday,” is one of many heartwarming messages written on the card and was signed by a girl named Mania.
“Zlatka risked her life to make this tiny, amazing object. Everything from the paper to the fabric, to the stitching, to the bread that she didn’t eat so she can mix it with water to make glue to stick it together …all of that was illegal,” said Sarah Fogg, a staff member at the Montreal Holocaust Museum.
She stole orange rope to embroider the letter ‘F’ for Fania and cut a piece of her purple blouse that she wore illegally under her uniform, to fabricate the covers of the booklet.
This was yet another heroic sacrifice Pitluk made.
One day, during an inspection at the factory, she was caught and confronted for wearing the blouse under her uniform by a kapo, a woman prostitute monitoring the work line.
The teen was brutally beaten nearly to death and fell unconscious. She was woken up after being drenched with a pail of water by the prisoner functionary.
Fogg said that Pitluk wore the purple blouse due to her allergy to the uniform’s fabric.
When Pitluk walked back to the factory line gasping for air, the women workers were crying in devastation after almost losing their dearest friend.
“I don’t know where I got the courage because I risked my life with every single word,” said Pitluk, sobbing hysterically recalling this horrifying memory in her testimony with the Montreal Holocaust Museum in 1998.
Pitluk’s sacrificial efforts were never forgotten and acted as a symbol of hope for Fania.
Sandy said her mother kept the booklet safely hidden for months at the camp, until she was liberated.
During a Death March, “she remembers that she kept it under her arm, in her armpit,” said Sandy.
“There were hundreds of miles and war transports and everything but, she absolutely kept it… that to me, is the most extraordinary part of the story.”
The Heart of Auschwitz has been viewed by thousands of visitors and holds a special place at the museum. Many have shared their admiration for the way it speaks to the human spirit.
“It was her friend’s birthday and she wanted to give her a gift. And I think that’s so powerful, when you think about the suffering and the persecution and the death and loss they were experiencing. Her gesture is one of such solidarity in humanity. I mean, there’s something so simple in that,” said Fogg.
Fogg referred to the countless unique stories that are attached to the card; the women who signed it, who protected it, and who made it. “This object is larger than all of us,” she added.
“You can’t take the human being out of that, you know? I mean, you can kill them physically but, spiritually, it’s harder,” said Sandy.
And Sandy can’t thank her inner Kathy Gregory enough.