By Noa Gutow-Ellis, Collections and Exhibitions Assistant 

It is a material manifestation of a young woman’s horrific experience in Auschwitz. It is a symbol of moral resistance. It is a family’s treasured possession. It is an artifact unlike any other.

It is Fania Fainer’s Heart of Auschwitz.

Heart of Auschwitz artifact
The inside of the Heart of Auschwitz artifact showing inscriptions written by fellow Auschwitz prisoners for Fania Fainer’s 18th birthday. Photo © Musealia

A facsimile of the Heart of Auschwitz* is currently on display in Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away. The exhibition text explains:

Fania Fainer and Zlatka Pitluk, two young Polish Jewish prisoners, were slave laborers at the Union factory that managed explosives. December 12, 1944, was Fainer’s 20th birthday, and Pitluk wanted to give her a present. She made a small booklet in the shape of a heart, and, with 18 friends, filled it with birthday wishes alongside messages of friendship and hope. The notes to Fainer are written in Polish, German, French, and Hebrew, and contain Fainer’s favorite inscription: “Freedom, Freedom, Freedom.” Accompanying the heart was a small birthday cake made from their daily bread ration. Fainer kept the heart with her in Auschwitz, on the death march, and in the Ravensbrück and Malchow concentration camps.

For all the destruction that took place during the Holocaust, it is vital to look back at the ways in which individuals and groups resisted that destruction physically and, with great care, spiritually. We see this resistance come to life through the detailed handiwork and thoughtful inscriptions in the Heart of Auschwitz artifact, completed even in the face of beatings or death as a consequence.

The Heart of Auschwitz
The cover of Fania Fainer’s Heart of Auschwitz. Photo © Musealia

The Heart of Auschwitz sits in a room of the Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away. exhibition that is dedicated to spiritual resistance, defined by Yad Vashem as determination to maintain one’s humanity and personal integrity in the face of the concerted Nazi attempts to dehumanise and degrade, and to affirm shared ethical, religious and cultural values. For an exhibition sharing the stories of Auschwitz – and life before, during, and after the Holocaust – this artifact is essential.

Learn more about this artifact through the documentary The Heart of Auschwitz.