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The Heart from Auschwitz: Humanity in a sea of horror

The Heart from Auschwitz, a memento signed by 19 women at the Nazi death camp, was smuggled by a former prisoner into Canada.

John Morstad for The Globe and Mail/john morstad The Globe and Mail

It sits like a jewel in a museum showcase, a cloth-and-paper valentine created in the midst of horror.

The Heart from Auschwitz is no bigger than a butterfly. It looks as fragile as one, too. Yet the tiny artifact rises on a pedestal like a testament to the strength of human resistance: Signed by 19 young women at the infamous Nazi concentration camp, it was smuggled out by a 20th woman who brought it with her to Canada.

Now the story of the heart, and the prisoners who risked their lives to make it, are being brought together in a new Quebec documentary film.

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The memento is a heart-shaped autograph book. Inside, on pages that open origami-like, are the birthday wishes of the women, who were slave labourers together inside the camp. At great personal risk, they gave it to a Polish inmate named Fania on her 20th birthday.

It was 1944, and the women, unsure they would survive and celebrate any birthdays ever again, defiantly penciled messages amid the hellishness of their surroundings.

"May your life be long and sweet," wrote a woman named Mazal.

"Freedom, freedom, freedom," wrote another, named Mania.

Fania not only hid the gift from her Nazi guards inside the camp, but spirited it away when she was forced into a death march from Auschwitz in 1945. Now 85, Fania Fainer lives in Toronto and donated the book to the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre.

"I wanted to show that in Auschwitz," Mrs. Fainer said, "there were still human beings, and people gave me a present."

That present, covered in cloth and embroidered with the letter F, caught the eye of Montreal filmmaker Carl Leblanc during a visit to the museum a decade ago. Touched, he spent two years trying to track down the women of the Union Munitions factory at Auschwitz who signed the booklet, scraping materials together amid the camp's deprivations in order to make someone a birthday present.

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"To me, the book incarnates, in a very humble but profound way, human dignity," Mr. Leblanc said in an interview. "The Nazis wanted to turn people into a number. The book, with its words and letters, is the refusal to be one."

His quest took him around the globe. Working with little more than first names, he travelled to the Red Cross's International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany, the Auschwitz Deportation Union in Paris and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. He encountered false leads, fading memories and the harsh reality that Auschwitz survivors were, on average, in their 80s.

That is, if the women who signed their names simply as Ruth, Irena and Hanka were still alive.

"For me, Auschwitz is my story, and what happened there was personal, even if I'm not Jewish," said Mr. Leblanc, whose film, The Heart of Auschwitz, premieres in Montreal on Sunday as part of the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma. "We should all be interested in the history of others, intensely enough so that it becomes our own history. So I guess that I became a little bit Jewish."

As remarkable as the women's determination - one gave up food to make glue from bread and water - is the fact the booklet endures.

Mrs. Fainer lost her entire family - her mother, father, siblings and every living relative - to the Holocaust. During the forced death march from Auschwitz, while around her prisoners fell to cold, starvation and random shootings by the SS, she hid the booklet under her arm. The heart was the sole possession to come out with her.

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"The only thing I had left after the war was the little book. It was something close to my heart," Mrs. Fainer said in an interview from Toronto.

Despite the booklet's immeasurable value, Mrs. Fainer agreed to donate it to the museum. "A normal human being can't imagine what happened in there. I want people to understand," she said.

In fact, the booklet is a major attraction at the museum. It's also an educational tool for hundreds of Montreal elementary and high-school students, who make hearts of their own and fill them with messages. One Grade 6 class at École Lambert Closse in Montreal's Mile End district made a heart booklet and offered it to Mrs. Fainer, in a scene shown in the film. "Fania, I find you very brave," one pupil wrote in French. "You are lucky to have such nice friends. I'm almost jealous."

For the students and thousands of visitors who see the autograph book, its most enduring lesson may be one about the human spirit, said museum curator Julie Guinard. "If human beings can create Auschwitz, I am happy to know that human beings can also create a little heart inside Auschwitz."

"Because if these women, in Auschwitz, were capable of having so much courage and empathy for one another, then maybe," Ms. Guinard said, "there is hope for the world."

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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