By the time we reach our eighth or ninth decade, we likely have moments that have defined our lives. Sometimes it’s a test of strength or an act of resilience. Sometimes it’s just a lucky break.
These are the moments that shape who we are.
For Annette Heller, the experience of overt anti-Semitism would lead her to some of her most important life decisions. Raised in Connecticut, she was the only Jewish student in her High School class in Stratford, Connecticut. She suffered the prejudice of other students and even teachers. As a result, she was very casual about the Jewish life her family led. Two years after she graduated from the University of Bridgeport, Annette connected with a Conservative synagogue, Rodeph Sholom, where the rabbi was seeking out younger members. She saw to it that young singles had a place to invest their energies with social activities and fundraising by establishing the Young People’s League. Eventually Annette moved with her parents to Brooklyn, New York. Finding work at a global engineering company, Annette took night classes in drama at the New School, instructed by actresses Polly Bergen and Bea Arthur. “We used to go for coffee with friends,” she remembers, chuckling. “Who would have thought she’d become Bea Arthur?”
Herbert Heller’s story is one of extraordinary strength, quick wit and a few lucky moments. Born in Prague in 1929, Herbert’s family was abruptly taken to a nearby Jewish Ghetto and Concentration camp at Terezin when he was just a young teenager. Then in May 1944, the family was transported to Auschwitz. At only 15 years old, Herbert found himself face to face with the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele. Amazingly, he knew enough German and had enough sense to say, “I can work!” thus saving his life. In January of 1945, as Russian and American armies were moving in, Herbert became one of the inmates forced to march in the bitter cold. Somehow he noticed a rucksack in his path and hid it under his prison uniform. That night, staying at a farmhouse, Herb saw that civilian clothes were inside. He put them on over his uniform, blended in with German workers, and made his way to a train station, eventually getting home to Prague. There he found a Catholic family his mother had known and was ultimately reunited with his mother and her two sisters. Sadly, Herbert’s father and brother were never heard from again. Herbert recalls the journey vividly: “In 1946, the U.S. allowed 1000 refugees to come from Prague. We traveled by bus through Germany, Denmark and Sweden, then a ship to Ellis Island, then a train, via Chicago, to Oakland, then a ferry to San Francisco, and finally a taxi ride to 435 15th Avenue. That’s how we got here!” He joined the United States Army Reserves, took citizenship classes at night, and became an United States citizen in 1952.
Annette was enjoying the life of a single gal when a mutual friend mentioned a dashing young up-and-comer he knew: Herbert Heller, a domestics buyer with Macy’s in San Francisco who was frequently in town on business. Annette had little interest until she was bribed with tickets to The Music Man if she would meet the visiting West Coaster. Annette admitted to herself he was fine company, and in 1955 she visited him in California. They married a year later in 1956, and in 1958, they established Heller’s for Children, a widely known store in Marin that thrived for 53 years. Their twin daughters were born in 1959 and another daughter was born in 1964.
Wanting their daughters to “know who they are,” it was then that Annette established her real connection to the Jewish community. They joined Rodef Sholom in the early 1960s. Annette volunteered with the American Cancer Society, transporting patients to chemotherapy. She continued to indulge her great interest in health issues by volunteering with City of Hope, the groundbreaking cancer research organization, and later with Marin Hadassah as President. Annette served as President of the Sisterhood and started the Spaghetti Bingo fundraiser. She also helped to establish the temple’s Meals for the Homeless program. Their three daughters and all their 10 grandchildren attended religious school and Hebrew school at the synagogue as well as having their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and being confirmed.
As the final generation to recount their experiences during World War II, Herbert volunteers his time by traveling to schools across the Bay Area. Herbert shares how he faced horrendous experiences most people could not imagine. While he describes his past to classrooms packed with young students, Herbert emphasizes that the importance of his life story is in its relevance to the present—out of turmoil and loss came success and fulfillment. His speeches are considered by many students as a pivotal part of their education.
Herbert and Annette are fine examples of strength and resilience and we are fortunate to have these respected members as part of our community.