Fanny Wedro, a ubiquitous presence in Calgary’s Jewish community and an unrelenting campaigner for Holocaust education in Alberta, died on Aug. 21 – four days short of her 96th birthday.
“Fanny would say that the first time in her life she ever felt tired was when she turned 95,” said Marnie Bondar, co-chair of Holocaust Education at Calgary Jewish Federation. “She was passionate about sharing Holocaust education. In the past few months, though her health took a turn for the worse and she had to use an oxygen tank, she would still come out to speak to students. She was still educating.”
“For many years, I have been saying, if we don’t educate, we might have another Holocaust because antisemitism is so great. It never died. It was just smoldering,” Wedro told The CJN Daily podcast ahead of an exhibit in Calgary about Holocaust survivors in June 2022.
During that interview, Wedro, who spoke to thousands of Alberta youth about the Shoah, touched upon her drive to tell the story of the Jews who were murdered in Europe outside of the concentration camps during the war. Their deaths were referred to as the Hidden Holocaust or, in a 2008 book of the same name by French priest and author Patrick Desbois, the “Holocaust by Bullets.”
“I participate in anything that has to do with the Holocaust, especially when I think that I am a survivor from the Holocaust by Bullets. Nobody knew about us. I have been fighting for 40 years to put us on the map. People in my town perished in vain and nobody knew about it,” she said.
Wedro was born Fania Hellman in Korzec, Poland (now Korets in Ukraine) on Aug. 25, 1927. When the Nazis rounded up the Jewish citizens of the town and marched them to the main square, they approached Wedro, who was with her mother, and asked her age. She was about to say 14, but her mother intervened and said she was 16, thereby sending Wedro into forced labour.
One of her jobs was to bury the Jews in the town who had been massacred, their bodies piled on top of one another layer by layer. There, among the dead, she came across a scarf that she knew to be her mother’s.
When rumours spread that there was going to be another massacre in Korzec, local Jews set fire to buildings to create a diversion. Wedro ran into the forest. Unable to join the Jewish partisans because she was too young, she survived, miraculously, on her own for 18 months. When she was ultimately freed by the Red Army in 1944, her clothing was so tattered that the soldier who liberated her gave her his parachute to wear.
In 1945, she was smuggled across numerous borders until she reached a displaced persons camp in Linz, Austria. Having received a Hebrew education before the war, she was able to serve as a teacher in a camp school. While at the camp, she met the love of her life, Leo (Leib) Wedro. They were married in the camp and immigrated to Canada in 1948.
Her first job in her new country was as a domestic for an elderly blind woman in Edmonton, where she learned English, one of seven languages she spoke, by listening to a western movie over and over again. She would later pluck chickens and land a job as a manager in a department store.
In 1956, the couple purchased their first grocery store. Ten years later, they opened a new store, the Wedro’s Store in Edmonton’s CN Tower—then the tallest building west of Toronto—and, in 1972, they purchased the Cascade Inn in Banff. They bought a home and moved to Calgary in 1974.
Always active in Jewish causes, Wedro volunteered for and sponsored many organizations. In 1980, she took part in a women’s mission with the United Jewish Appeal and flew on the first El Al flight from Tel Aviv to Cairo. Together with her husband, who died in 2007, she created numerous funds at the Jewish Community Foundation of Calgary to support Holocaust education in the city. She also helped start a Calgary chapter for Canadian Magen David Adom.
In 1992, she worked with the city association of Miedzyrzec, the birthplace of her husband, and Israel to put a Holocaust memorial in place and advocated for a similar memorial for Korzec in 1993.
“Fanny made it her life mission that the Hidden Holocaust was known and that Korzec was known,” Bondar said.
In her talks with students, Bondar recounted, Wedro would describe some of the horrendous acts of cruelty inflicted on the Jews by the Nazis in Korzec during the bloody massacres. In the end, though, her message was one of hope.
“Cherish this country and love one another. We should all live in harmony,” Wedro was fond of telling her audiences of young people.
According to those who knew her well, Father Desbois’ book had a profound impact on Wedro. His work, dedicated to locating mass graves of Jews and Roma murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators, allowed her to gain a better sense of clarity about her own experiences.
In 2012, she was personally interviewed by Father Desbois in Detroit, and subsequently, to mark her 87th birthday in 2014, the Jewish community in Calgary created the Fanny Wedro Holocaust Education Fund to bring Father Desbois to Alberta to discuss his work.
Among other honours, Wedro was the recipient of the Golda Meir Leadership Award from the State of Israel Bonds in 2019 and an honorary doctorate of law from the University of Calgary in June 2023. On Aug. 25, the university lowered its flags in her memory.
Wedro is the second powerful force behind Holocaust education in Alberta to have died in recent months. Fellow survivor Sid Cyngiser passed away in June at age 99.
“She was a mentor and a friend to many people in the community who had a vibrant, full life. She had a flock of women who loved her to death,” Bondar said.
Wedro is survived by son, Ben (Kelly), daughter Eleanor (Joseph) and three grandchildren.