Holocaustsurvivor teaches with art

Justin Costley

In 1945 Austria, the Gunskirchen concentration camp’s only purpose was death.
But for Robert Fisch and the 30,000 other captives, life and death didn’t seem to matter.
“This was a so-called terminal stage,” Fisch said. “You emotionally feel nothing. Alive or dead, you have no joy or sorrow. You just keep going. Like the marathon runner, you just run until you get there.”
The smell of the rotting dead suffocated the air, as well as the stench from a lack of hygiene among those still alive. The smell was unbearable at first and then ceased to affect the captives.
“Smell has a very short memory,” Fisch said.
The repugnance of the situation eventually became their savior, however. The first American soldier discovered the camp following the stench, not a map.
His experiences during the Holocaust have shaped Fisch’s attitude, which has been reflected in his subsequent life as an artist, educator and renowned pediatrician in Hungary and at the University.
For decades, Fisch hid his emotions and memories of the Holocaust, which took the life of his father and 6 million other Jews during World War II.
Now he uses the lessons he learned from his experience to inspire people. He especially enjoys speaking to school children and he does so about once a week.
His daughter, Alex, saw this as a bit of an evolution. “From the beginning, I know that it was difficult for him to talk about it,” she said. “He was much darker on the issue.
“As he’s gotten older, he’s definitely seen more beauty in a situation. It went from this horrible experience, to this remarkable learning experience for him,” Alex said.
In his speeches to kids, Fisch tries to impart his philosophy of not taking life for granted and appreciating things like freedom and the everyday occurrences in life.
“I enjoy every minute of life,” Fisch said. “I enjoy putting a potato in a microwave. That to me is a great deal of joy. For you it’s nothing, but I appreciate the gift of life.
“What do you know about freedom?” he asked. “To you it’s a natural thing. If you don’t have it, then you can understand what it means.”
Perhaps the most important thing he’s trying to teach, though, is love. Civility, beauty, humanity and respect for others are major themes in his speeches.
“This gives me the greatest pleasure, to have an impact on young people,” Fisch said. “It’s not about my story, but what they could learn from my story. In order to have respect, you have to respect other people.”
Using his lifelong passion for art and his memories of the Holocaust, Fisch compiled a book in 1994 titled “Light from the Yellow Star, A Lesson of Love from the Holocaust.” The book combines his paintings and words to depict both the humanity and cruelty of his experience.
The living dead
Fisch was 18 when the Germans seized Hungary in 1944. Soon after, all Jews had to be marked with the Star of David. Property was confiscated, and many were moved to the ghettos.
While working one day in the liaison office between the Jewish community and the German commandant, Fisch learned of the first loading of Jews into boxcars.
Though he didn’t know their destination, he knew their fate.
“The whole concept of life had changed,” he said. “From then on, I knew that we were going to be killed. It was only a question of if they’re going to kill me first, or are they going to lose the war first.”
The fear and apprehension associated with Allied air raids dissipated as Fisch realized the surrender of Germany was his only hope of survival.
“I was so scared from the air raids before that,” he added. “From then on I was euphoric each time a bomb was dropping on a city, because I knew that meant that they would be defeated.”
While Fisch’s mother would escape the horror by hiding with a Catholic women until after the liberation, Fisch and his father did not.
He still remembers the day they were separated, a day that he would eventually learn would be the last time he would see his father. Through a glass window, they waved to each other for the last time.
“We didn’t say goodbye,” he said. “We did like we would do under any other circumstances. You never say goodbye to someone you love. I can still see him waving to me.”
By the time Fisch had been rescued in May 1945, he had lived through one work camp and two concentration camps.

Life is beautiful
During his experience, he was forced to endure not only the psychological torture of guards, but physical devastation as well.
The mass starvation, the stench of decomposing bodies, disease-bearing lice infestations and lines of 30,000 people waiting for a bathroom served to strip Fisch and the others of all emotion, especially hope.
The impossibility of that many people using the bathroom in only six hours didn’t matter to the SS guards, who allocated only that time and would shoot anybody who attempted to relieve themselves after this period.
Even in the face of utterly inhumane conditions, Fisch said glimpses of humanity appeared, even among the guards. He described that while on the march, some guards who had been rude in front of their officers offered food or water to the prisoners when they could not be seen.
And while liberation day was the happiest day for him, the most touching might have been when his old nanny Anna, who was crippled, brought him food while he was in a work camp.
“I think, to me, that was the most important thing because even in this hopeless situation, some hope and joy could occur,” Fisch said.

Tender visions
Despite the pain, Fisch said he does not have any bitterness or hatred in his heart.
“I have to make it very clear, I’m not talking forgiveness,” Fisch said. “How could I forgive that someone made my father starve to death? How could I forgive people who mass murder millions of people?”
Rather, Fisch does not allow his views of his captors, who at the time of his captivity he wanted to kill, to affect the way he looks at Germans or anyone today.
“I have no different feelings for a German boy or child than Russian or Israeli or anything,” he said. “They cannot be responsible for their grandfathers’ actions.”
Emotions were still hard to summon for Fisch after the war, even as he learned of his father’s demise.
It wasn’t until digging began at his grave site in the Jewish Memorial Cemetery for the Martyrs in Budapest that the tears flowed.
The selfless nature in which his father died, giving portions of his limited rations to others as he slowly starved, provided little relief to Fisch who wanted his father back.

Moving forward
After the war, Fisch attended medical school in Budapest. After traveling to America in 1957, he became an intern at the University in 1958. He has been here ever since, and has become internationally known for his work with a genetic disease called Phenylketonuria (PKU).
Now that he is semi-retired, he devotes much of his time to educating people on the need to treat life as a gift. It is the same message he gives his daughter.
Though many parents stress the importance of seizing the day and living life to the fullest, she said the power of his story gives his words added weight.
“His advice is coming from somewhere,” she said. “Most parents say, don’t waste time, take each day as it comes, carpe diem, and he says all those things, but because I know the history and the background of this advice I’m better able to fit it into my life.”
Since the war, Fisch has returned to Hungary, including one visit with his daughter in January. Together, father and daughter visited the grave site of his father Zoltan Fisch.
“That is probably where his greatest sorrow lies,” Alex said. “Of all of his family, he loved his father the most. It was the first time I had ever seen the grave, and he just cried, and cried, and cried. It was very emotional.”
Fisch does not allow somber moments to dominate his existence, though. Occasional nightmares and fleeting moments are all that remains of the misery that the Holocaust inflicted on him.
Instead, he focuses on the positive lessons from his experience and together with a new companion he attempts to get the most out of the time he has left.
Karen Bachman, who describes herself as a close, loving friend, said Fisch gets enjoyment out of numerous things in his life now.
“From being with his daughter, to being with people, to the theater, to music, to a beautiful day, I think he enjoys life to the fullest,” she said.

Justin Costley covers the Medical School and welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3224.