Honouring the memory of Fania Wedro OBM

Holocaust Survivor Fanny Wedro z'l. Photograph by Marnie Burkhardt, courtesy Here to Tell: Faces of Holocaust Survivors.

by Maxine Fischbein

(AJNews) – Tears were, no doubt, shed in at least three Alberta cities when Fania (Fanny) Wedro passed away on August 21, 2023, just four days short of her 96th birthday.

Laying Fanny to her eternal rest at the Chevra Kadisha Cemetery in Calgary was a moment of mixed emotions for all who knew her. There was great sadness in a community that had, over the years, become Fanny’s extended family. But there was also much comfort in giving her the time-honoured funeral rites that were denied her family and millions of other men, women and children slaughtered by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II.

For Fanny (née Elman), born in 1927, nothing in life was ever a guarantee.

Only 14 years old when the Nazis marched into her town of Korzec, Ukraine in 1941 and took her father away, Fanny was forced to dig ditches and clean the Synagogue where the Nazis made a point of stabling their horses. Her mother was shot into a mass grave by the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing squad)—assisted in their murderous task by Ukrainian auxiliary police.

Fanny was one of the remaining Jews forced to cover the horrifying kill site. She never forgot the rivers of blood and how the earth continued to heave.

One can scarcely imagine how crushed Fanny must have been when she then threw herself at the mercy of a Christian neighbour who had been like a second mother to her, only to be thrown out of her neighbour’s home with the words “dirty Jew” ringing in her ears.

When Fanny heard rumours of another impending massacre, she made her daring escape into the forest. There, the partisans rejected her, saying she was too young.

That was a big mistake. Fanny Wedro would, no doubt, have proven an effective secret weapon.

Fanny was made of tough stuff. Even as a teenaged girl left to her own devices, she survived for 18 months in the forest. Fanny was liberated by the Red Army in 1944. Her brother had also survived the Shoah, only to be murdered by an antisemitic Ukrainian nationalist shortly after liberation, leaving Fanny the sole survivor in her family.

Smuggled across several borders, Fanny made her way to a Displaced Persons camp in Linz, Austria where she worked as a teacher and met and married Leo. In 1948, they immigrated to Canada, where Fanny had found a position as a domestic worker. She learned English by going to the movies.

Fanny and Leo lived in Edmonton where they eventually owned a grocery store and several convenience stores, including one in the CN Tower. They were blessed with two children, Ben and Eleanor (and, in the fullness of time, three granddaughters, Alexandra, Meredith and Celina).

Leo and Fanny moved in a new direction when they purchased and operated the Banff Cascade Inn during the 1970s. There, they generously supported the Whyte Museum and the Banff hospital.

After purchasing a home in Calgary in 1974, Fanny and Leo—who passed away in 2007— supported many community organizations and established charitable funds to support the causes they cared about, most notably Holocaust remembrance and education.

Fanny was instrumental in establishing Holocaust memorial sites and restoring the Jewish cemeteries of Korzec and Miedzyrzec.

Her charitable efforts ranged from the purchase of a Torah for House of Jacob-Mikveh Israel in 2009—in memory of Leo—to generous support for inclusion programming for Jewish community members with special needs. Israel was always close to Fanny’s heart, and she supported the humanitarian work of Calgary Magen David Adom, donating ambulances for use in the Holy Land.

Over the years, Fanny was honoured by a number of organizations, including Magen David Adom and State of Israel Bonds.

In recent years, Fanny teamed up with the Krell and Switzer families—with whom she shared a particularly close bond— to form the KSW Calgary Holocaust Education and Commemoration Endowment Fund, which funds innovative Holocaust education and cultural projects, working in conjunction with partners within and beyond the Jewish community, including the Calgary Public Library.

Fanny is best known for her active involvement in the Annual Holocaust Education Symposium, where she shared her personal testimony with thousands of high school students and educators for decades.

A highlight of Fanny’s life was meeting and getting to know Father Patrick Desbois, the French Catholic priest who has dedicated his life to locating mass graves of Jews and Roma murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators in Ukraine and throughout Eastern Europe during the Holocaust by Bullets.

It was painful to Fanny that the tragedy that befell her family, her friends and neighbours, and an estimated two million Jews across Eastern Europe was for so long overlooked or treated as a footnote to Holocaust history.

Fanny traveled to Detroit in 2012, where she was interviewed by Father Desbois, thus helping to inform his research and add her vital eyewitness testimony to the historical record.

She later said it was a relief to finally encounter someone who understood her and validated the extent of the Nazi’s mass murder campaigns prior to the establishment of death camps.

In 2014, Fanny realized a dream, spearheading and generously supporting a visit to Calgary by Father Debois, who spoke to a large audience at the Beth Tzedec Synagogue, participated at a multi-faith Holocaust remembrance service at St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church, and was interviewed by media together with Fanny who, as always, provided her searing eyewitness account of the slaughter in Korzec.

Fittingly, the University of Calgary recognized Fanny’s remarkable contribution to Holocaust education when they bestowed upon her an honourary Doctor of Laws degree—its highest academic honour— just months ago, during the 2023 Spring Convocation.

“As a survivor of the Holocaust, Fanny Wedro has dedicated her life to promoting Holocaust education,” the University stated.

“A leading philanthropist and speaker, Wedro continues to give back to her community with a lifetime of volunteerism, speaking to schools, community and government officials about her horrific Holocaust experiences and the mass graves in Eastern Europe, known as the Hidden Holocaust.”

True to that description, Fanny remained dedicated to the cause, even as her health declined.

At the age of 94, she stood for hours, speaking to numerous school groups touring the Here to Tell: Faces of Holocaust Survivors exhibit after it premiered at the Glenbow at the Edison in the spring of 2022.

In the midst of that, Fanny further ramped up her efforts when she learned of an antisemitic act that had occurred at a school just a few kilometres from her home. True to form, she insisted on visiting the school to address students and staff.

By then, Fanny was one of very few remaining Holocaust survivors still able to withstand the physical and emotional rigors of sharing their testimony in classrooms and at community gatherings.

“This last year, even while her health was failing, Fanny refused to miss out on any opportunity where she could connect with students,” recalls Marnie Bondar, who co-chairs the Holocaust and Human Rights: Remembrance and Education department of Calgary Jewish Federation together with Dahlia Libin.

“Hauling an oxygen tank behind her, and taking rests on her way in and out of the Glenbow Museum, high schools and Mount Royal University, Fanny’s presence impacted the  youth around her,” added Bondar. “Her loss is felt deeply by all, but especially by those on the front lines of Holocaust education, where she so richly gave of herself.”

More and more, the responsibility of bearing witness has fallen to second, third and even some fourth generation survivors who—together with other allies in the community— now carry the indelible imprint of the stories and voices of remarkable and resilient survivors like Fanny.

Many, if not most, members of the Alberta Jewish community knew Fanny Wedro or, at least, knew of her. She was loved by many, feared by some and respected by all for the tenacity with which she conducted herself through a long and accomplished life, both despite and because of the terror and loss she had endured.

Fanny was a no-nonsense woman. And God help those individuals who challenged her political views. More than a few experienced her wrath at some point or other, but even they respected her tenacity and clarity of purpose.

“Fanny knew the value of friendship,” said Bondar. “Even after many of her contemporaries passed away, Fanny made incredible friendships with younger generations of women who looked up to her for her wisdom and guidance.”

“The community was Fanny’s family,” said Darlene Switzer-Foster.

That means we all have work to do. Together with other Alberta Holocaust survivors who have gone to olam habah, Fanny bared her soul to share painful testimony over and over again, even though it never got easier in the telling.

The best way we can honour their memory is by continuing their sacred mission.

Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.


1 Comment on "Honouring the memory of Fania Wedro OBM"

  1. Leith Campbell | Sep 4, 2023 at 8:54 am | Reply

    Thank you for this article. She was a force!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.