The Heart of Auschwitz: The beauty of human devotion

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. 


Jojo Rabbit: a comedy about nazis. What could go wrong?

Director Taika Waititi teaches us to laugh at the idiotic nature of war


No, this isn’t a review for Peter Rabbit 2… Today we’re focused on Taika Waititi’s nazi comedy Jojo Rabbit.

Jojo Rabbit is a film focused on a little boy named Jojo who idolizes his country and its ruler, Adolf Hitler in the midst of World War II. As he trains to one day become a soldier, Hitler appears to him as his imaginary best friend and Jojo dreams of being in his inner circle. However, Jojo has to question his values and priorities when he discovers that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their house. Written and directed by Waititi, it is certainly an interesting movie when you think about its subject matter in relation to its genre; a comedy about Nazi Germany. Yet, somehow, Waititi pulls it off.

Waititi portrays Hitler with no regard for historical accuracy and instead plays an eccentric figure who encourages Jojo to be the best of the best. He’s exactly what a little boy’s imaginary friend would be, with no relation to the real person. This creates a distance between the actual historical figure and the version of Hitler Jojo has in his mind. This distance makes it clear that Jojo does not really love Hitler, but simply thinks he does. We never see the real Hitler, only the man interpreted through Jojo’s imagination. In that sense, the film poignantly explores ignorance and blind patriotism from the perspective of an impressionable young boy, a theme that carries weight today; through social media, many young people are encouraged to hate others before they even have a chance to learn about them. This can be seen on something as simple as a plethora of hate comments on a YouTube video to entire websites dedicated to hate groups. Jojo Rabbit follows this idea. It does not focus on nazism more than it needs to, it instead focuses on the outcome of its existence. Jojo Rabbit is a comedy with a purpose; to take a child unaware of what he really stands for and to put you in his shoes.

Along with its hilarity, Jojo Rabbit is also a very innocent film because of its perspective. There are many joyful moments as we see the world through a child’s eyes, and only as adults can we think of the repercussions of the situation around him. Roman Griffin Davis gave an excellent performance as Jojo, with great comedic timing and an ability to emotionally connect with the audience. At the age of 12, he’s got a huge future ahead of him, and I look forward to seeing where he goes next. Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson and Thomasin McKenzie also had notable performances in this film and made for a great supporting cast.

There were frequent and jarring tonal shifts throughout the film, where you would laugh one minute then feel completely shattered the next. Although these shifts were striking, I believe that they were necessary thematically. As Jojo’s perception of the world around him and of himself changes, so does the film.

Jojo Rabbit makes you laugh at the absurdities of hate but still forces you to look at the suffering that comes from that animosity. In that sense, Waititi is a genius. He’s able to make a hilarious comedy about Nazis that retains emotional resonance about its subject matter. Keep an eye out for Waititi in the future, I have a feeling he has tons more in store.



Graphic by @sundaeghost


Remembering World War II

On Sept. 10, the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies and the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Montreal hosted a night where survivors shared their most striking memories from World War II.

The idea was orchestrated by Concordia History Professor, Alison Rowley, who wanted to approach the commemoration of such a tragic event in the most humane way possible. The Institute, which is part of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences of Concordia University, brought together five Polish-Canadians; Lech Andrzej Czerwiński, Kajetan Biniecki, Teresa Romer, Mila Messner and Halina Babińska. All five took turns to recount their own experiences of the war.

The context has never been an easy one to recall. Poland first got attacked by Nazi Germans in September 1939. And while struggling to defend its territory it also got attacked by the Soviet Union, under the guise that the Red Army was there to protect its own citizens living in various parts of Poland. War was everywhere.

“When you talk about a place such as [Poland] that lost at least four and a half million of its citizens, when you talk about numbers that size, it’s so big that it’s almost meaningless,” said Dr. Rowley. “It’s hard for human beings to understand anything on that scale, and that’s why evenings like this are so important. Because what we have done here is we [share] memories of individuals, and those stories resonate.”

Rowley argued that shared memories are perhaps more powerful than numbers. And truthfully, one can easily imagine what kind of impact intimately shared recollections of the war have on someone, rather than reading about it in a history book.

Each speaker brought a different angle, yet the same poignant feeling remained throughout the evening. All spoke of the oppressive situation, describing the dark clouds as an omen of disaster as they heard the names of their relatives, through the loudspeakers, being called to never be seen again.

“There were so many aspects of living in this rotten society,” said Messner, who was 16 years old when the war erupted. “You would be afraid of your neighbours, but then you could also be momentarily helped by German soldiers.”

Those individual stories are different lenses of the world, which is what Rowley tried to emphasize. We all have families, friends we care about and we all have seen the strength of the human spirit and the humanity that binds us together, she said.

But probably the most heart-wrenching moment was when Czerwiński, who’s now 97 years old, solemnly recalled his group of friends, one by one, and what horrific fate the war brought upon some of them, while it spared others.

“We were asking, always, the question why all those horrible things were happening,” said Czerwiński. “We decided that war was inevitable. So whatever would come, we would attempt to survive [these horrible times]. But each attempt to prevent provocation would result in the murder of at least 10 citizens. The only way to survive these horrors was to have a clear mind and to think properly. It’s the only answer I can give you.”


Photo by Virginie Ann 

Student Life

Lest We Forget

Reflecting on the effect WWII had on one family

In 1918, Nov. 11 marked the day the Allies and Germany signed the armistice that ended World War I (WWI), supposedly around 11 a.m. Now known as Remembrance Day, Nov. 11 is a day to remember the sacrifices made by those in the line of duty, the lives lost during times of war and lives still being lost today. It’s a dark memorial day for many, and each person’s familial ties with both WWI and World War II (WWII) will invariably differ. However, the act of remembering those enlisted, albeit willingly or not, who have lost their lives to political conflicts is an act of respect we should all put our personal politics aside for.

Throughout my childhood, Remembrance Day was a day where I’d proudly watch my grandpa, Ryzard Guziak, address his fellow veterans at his branch of The Royal Canadian Legion in Toronto. Dressed to the nines in full uniform, adorned with pins and ribbons, him and his lifelong friends would oscillate between warmly reminiscing their youth and sadly remembering their fallen friends who were denied life beyond adolescence.

Nov. 11 is a day of remembering Ryzard’s sacrifices throughout WWII; about remembering my other grandpa, Roger Hutchins, and his decision to join the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1943, and the sacrifices that entailed. It should be noted, though, that Ryzard and Roger’s war stories are vastly different. Roger willingly joined the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve and remained stationed in Canada until the war ended, before eventually transferring to the Fleet Air Arm by 1950. Ryzard’s story, however, is much more complex. Since both of them have passed away, all I have are my memories.

Remembrance Day is one where I remember the decisions they made for freedom; for the freedom of future generations. I think of my sisters and I—of my niece, Stella, who neither of my grandpas got the chance to meet—and of the privilege we all had of growing up in stable conditions. I think of the freedom we have in our everyday lives; the freedom to mobilize and express our thoughts. Nov. 11 is a day where I remember Roger and Ryzard’s lives—how WWII adversely affected them, both on and off the battlefields—and what theirs, and so many other sacrifices, mean to the liberties we’re accustomed to.

Ryzard Guziak, my mother’s father, was born in Krynki, Poland in 1923, and raised in Bródno, a town in the northeast section of the Warsaw borough. My great-grandfather, Karol Guziak, was chief of detectives in Bródno, according to my grandma, Evelyn Guziak. When WWII was declared in 1939, the Germans immediately invaded Poland due to the proximity of their borders. “The Nazis just walked in and took over everything,” said Evelyn. Karol, Ryzard, and his mother were caught by Nazis at the Polish border while trying to flee to Lithuania. Nazis took Karol away and imprisoned him somewhere in Poland. Ryzard and his mother never saw Karol again; it’s assumed he was killed while imprisoned.

Ryzard was 16 at the time, temporarily living with his mother under Nazi occupation. However, their house was seized by Nazis, their valuables taken from them and, eventually, my grandfather too. According to Evelyn, in 1940, the Nazis came for Ryzard and many other young men in the middle of the night and, within hours, he was forcibly put on a train headed for Siberia. For the next few years, Ryzard worked in extremely poor conditions in the Russian salt mines, while tensions grew between the Nazis and Russians. By 1942, Russia was knee-deep in combat against the Nazis, and released most of their prisoners working in the mines, Ryzard included.

With absolutely nothing, not even proper clothes to weather the harsh temperatures in Russia, Ryzard jumped from train to train in hopes of finding a Polish recruitment centre he’d heard rumours of somewhere deep in Russia. After eventually finding the recruitment centre, around 1943, Ryzard made his way by train from Russia to Egypt to join the The Polish II Corps. But when Ryzard arrived, already incredibly ill from malnourishment, he contracted a skin disease from a dirty razor, causing his health to decline even further.

After barely recovering, Ryzard joined The Polish II Corps to fight against the Nazis, mostly through Italy. He lost many of his close friends in the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944. “It wasn’t a fun time,” said Evelyn. “He never told me the dark stories. He would always try to make a joke of it. That’s the only way they could deal with it.”

Evelyn recalled a story Ryzard once told her, which likely occurred during the Battle of Monte Cassino. He and his platoon partner were on patrol somewhere in central Italy, and took a break to go to the bathroom in the woods. Only a few feet from Ryzard, his friend stepped on a landmine. “I’m sure [Ryzard] got splattered,” said Evelyn with a shudder. Luckily, Ryzard came out of the Battle relatively unscathed, except for a knick on his chin from a sniper that barely missed him.

WWII ended while Ryzard was still stationed in Italy, and since Poland had become communist throughout the war, he and his friends decided to stay in Modena for the time being. By the end of 1945, Ryzard’s station was moved to Britain, and eventually to Glasgow, Scotland, where he met my grandmother. At the time, Evelyn’s maiden name was McElroy. My grandparents met in a dance club called The Locarno, where they ballroom-danced the night away. Within six months, they were married. By 1952, they immigrated to Canada together, first docking in Montreal but eventually choosing Toronto as their final destination. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Feature image archive photo courtesy of the Guziak and Hutchins family.

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