Fanya Gottesfeld Heller was born to a Jewish family in the small village of Skala, Poland. She was a teenager during the Nazi Occupation of her home land in World War II. She, her brother, and her parents survived with the help of two Christian rescuers.
They were hidden by Sidor, a Polish peasant, in a dugout in his barn, a narrow space so small they had to remain in a crouching position. They stayed there for nearly two-and-a half years, freezing in winter and sweltering in summer, with rats, mice and lice as their constant companions. In 1993, she published Strange and Unexpected Love: A Teenage Girl's Holocaust Memoirs, later republished as Love in a World of Sorrow: A Teenage Girl’s Holocaust Memoirs (2005).
After the war, she emigrated to the USA, and earned a B.A. and an M.A. in psychology from The New School for Social Research, and studied art history at Columbia University; philosophy and literature at The New School; and family therapy at the Ackerman Institute. She worked for several years in her husband Joseph's real estate business. After his death in 1986, she turned to philanthropy and public speaking about her Holocaust experiences. She wrote articles that appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and various Jewish newspapers.
In 1998, she established The Fanya Gottesfeld Heller Center for the Study of Women in Judaism at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. She served on the boards of numerous educational and charitable organizations, including The Jewish Museum, Yeshiva University, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the American Society for Yad Vashem.