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Dana Fast: The McMaster gardener

October 29, 2008
By SUSAN MOODY, Special to the Enterprise

"I was born as Lilka Miron into a middle-class, urban, secular Jewish family," begins Dana Fast. Her father ran a successful business in Warsaw, where her family lived in a spacious, new apartment, with live-in help. At home, there were no Jewish traditions. Instead, there was lots of Polish literature, Polish poetry, and classics. Neither Yiddish nor Hebrew was spoken. "It was a highly-educated Polish family," Dana explained.

Her happy, innocent childhood ended abruptly in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland and the persecution of Jews began. Her family spent two years in the Warsaw Ghetto, under deplorable, near-starvation conditions. Meat and dairy were nonexistent; they survived only through the help of her parents' Polish connections who snuck in some food and money. In 1942, German liquidation of the ghetto began and more than three million Polish Jews were sent to their death in concentration camps as a part of Hitler's "final solution."

"At that point, my family was smuggled out of the ghetto - first my little brother Jurek and me, then my parents. Once more, family connections with Poles on the Aryan side of the ghetto wall were a tremendous asset. I was passed from hand to hand, masquerading under false identity: first to a farm in the country, then to an orphanage run by the Sisters of Charity, later to a family in Warsaw. It was during this time that Lilka ceased to exist. Dana was 'born' and as Dana, I remained," she said. Jurek (now Jerry) was kept safe by a brave Polish family who risked their lives to save him. In 1943 Dana's father was killed by the Gestapo. After the war her mother, the sole breadwinner of the family, worked as a bookkeeper, and Dana and Jurek went to school. Dana never went back to her old Jewish identity, "I was just another Polish Christian girl," Dana said. She graduated from high school in 1950 and passed the competitive entrance exam to Warsaw Polytechnic. While in university, she married, and her daughter Yvona was born in 1955.

Article Photos

Dana Fast
(Photo —Susan Moody

Dana earned a master's degree in chemistry in 1956 with emphasis on technology of pharmaceuticals. That year, Ben-Gurion made an agreement with the Polish government to ease emigration of Jews to Israel. "Whoever was left in the family went to Israel," said Dana. Her mother and brother were among 200,000 to flee and in 1962 Dana and Yvona followed.

Israel was the "way station" to America for Dana and her dream was fulfilled in 1964, when she was able to immigrate into the United States. "The friend who sponsored us lived in Chicago, so that is where we moved first, and I got a job in bio-research at the University of Chicago," said Dana.

After a while, they moved to the east coast to be closer to family. She worked at the University of Pennsylvania biochemistry department for three years, and then moved to Syracuse, where she got a medical research position at Upstate Medical Center. Around this time, her daughter Yvona graduated from high school, and Dana had her first garden - an experience that would grow into a passion that would change the direction of her life.

"A friend gave me some spring bulbs, so I planted my first tulips. When they bloomed in the spring, my god, I was hooked," she said. When her husband George suggested "flowers are nice, but why don't you grow something we can eat?" Dana began her vegetable garden with radishes, green onions and lettuce. "I found out they taste so much better than the things you buy in the supermarket," said Dana.

When Dana and her family first visited the Adirondacks for a vacation and she thought, "If I could get a job here, I would move tomorrow. It was my little dream," said Dana. She found out there were two research facilities here, and set out to convince her husband that such a move would be healthy for him. He eventually agreed and accepted a position as head of Franklin County Mental Health; Dana began working at Trudeau Institute.

In 1974 they bought a house on McMaster Road in Lake Clear. Dana was more interested in the square footage for a garden than she was in the size of the house. "The house was not much, really, but it had four and-a-half acres and that is what sold me on the property," she said. To her disappointment, most of the land was on a steep hillside and not arable.

"One of the first improvements we made was a drainage trench to keep the run-off from the mountain from going through the basement," she said. Dana asked the guy who was putting in the drainage if he could dig a trench in the front yard, which he did. All winter, she threw in scraps from the kitchen. In the spring Dana planted asparagus in that trench. This was the beginning of her vegetable garden.

Dana worked at Trudeau Institute and then the Alton Jones Cell Center until she retired in 1991 when she began gardening in earnest. Using a scientific approach, she read books on gardening and in 1994 became a Master Gardener through a training program offered by Cornell Cooperative Extension. An excellent resource for learning, the program's mission is "to enable people to improve their lives and communities through partnerships that put experience and research knowledge to work." Today Dana is the longest continuous member of the Master Gardener Program in the Adirondacks and regularly and generously helps new gardeners gain skills required by our climatic difficulties.

In February, she begins her garden by planting seeds indoors. Her garden starts giving back to her in May with her original planting of asparagus and finishes with root vegetables in late fall. An organic gardener, Dana uses composting, cover crops and careful plantings. "My garden is 1200 square feet, with 300 of that being in cover crop. With this, we supply most of our vegetables for the year," said Dana. A believer in shopping locally she buys meat, eggs and milk from area farmers. She and Yvona, who permanently moved to Saranac Lake five years ago, also forage for wild apples, leeks, mushrooms, blueberries and raspberries. They freeze, brine, and preserve the bounty of the garden and woods to carry them through most of the winter.

In addition, Dana finds time to volunteer at the Paul Smiths Visitor Interpretive Center, works on the Village Improvement Society's "Welcome Garden," and is a member of the newly founded Green Circle.

A 46-er and a member of the Adirondack Mountain Club, she leads outings and does a lot of canoeing, cross-country skiing, swimming and hiking.

Dana is still very close to her brother Jerry and his family who now live in northern New Jersey, and keeps in touch with her cousins in Israel.

"When I moved here, they thought I was the crazy sister who lives in the woods. After they came here to visit a few times, I became Jerry's sister who lives in this absolutely fantastic place," Dana said.



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