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Little Aunt Fanny Lerner

04/01/2019 08:07:27 PM


Ilana Axel, Cantorial Leader

I clearly remember dancing with Aunt Fanny Lerner at my Aunt Marilyn’s wedding in 1962. I was only six years old, but Aunt Fanny Lerner (we all called her that so as not to confuse her with my own grandmother Fanny Weiss) wasn’t that much taller than I. She was at that time the oldest surviving member of her generation in my family, and I was the first child born into my generation, so everyone was pretty excited that we got to dance together. There is a Super 8 somewhere with our images, dancing the twist together.

Whenever anyone in my family mentioned Aunt Fanny Lerner (she was actually my great-great aunt) her name was said with a weird sort of reverence. First, I thought it was because she was sooo old (she was only in her 60’s then, but I was very young). Then, for a while I thought it was because she had brought her three children—Manya, Gerda, and Norbert—over to America from Germany, all by herself, on the renowned ship Bremen on the eve of World War II. My great-great Uncle Bernard was already living in New Jersey, waiting for them. The Bremen was mid-Atlantic on August 22, 1939 when Hitler ordered all Germany’s merchant ships to return home. Bernard became frantic for their safety as the news reached him. Manya remembers feeling the ship turn once, then back again as the Bremen’s captain, Adolf Ahrens, decided to allow his passengers to disembark in New York before returning to Germany. His decision probably saved my families’ lives.

But recently my cousin Ellen Kastner told me the full story behind our admiration for her grandmother, little Aunt Fanny Lerner. It was because of Kristallnacht, which found her in November 1938, with her children in her town, Rheinbischofsheim, Germany, near the French border, waiting for their visas to join Bernard in America. Norbert was then about 8 years old and he told his cousin (my dad) how he remembers clutching at his mother’s skirts while they hid in their home, crouching on the floor so the maddened rioters couldn’t spot them. Even so, soon enough an axe came flying in through the shattering window and landed on the floor nearby. Little Aunt Fanny Lerner stood up, grabbed the ax, opened her front door, strode outside, and placed all of her barely 5 foot-tall self in front of the man who most likely had thrown the ax. “This must be yours,” she declared defiantly, waving it in front of his nose.

One reason Fanny and her children survived to tell the story is that other neighbors of hers then gathered around them and forced the man and his cronies to back off. Yes, you read that correctly, her neighbors stood up to protect their Jewish friend and her children. They were—as our congregant and Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center docent Ron Coppel often says—true upstanders. As Ron teaches: the world often demands that we choose to be either bystanders or upstanders. There are those who stand by doing nothing when evil or injustice take place. Then there are others, like my Aunt Fanny Lerner and her neighbors, who choose to stand up to wrong by taking action. These are the true heroes of our world, even when we don’t know their names.

As we celebrate Passover together this month, then turn our attention once again to the martyrs and heroes of our people who were impacted by the Holocaust, let us be inspired by the upstanders in our lives and try our best to emulate them. Sometimes they stand barely 5 foot tall, but they tower over us with their courage.

Tue, June 25 2024 19 Sivan 5784