From the moment I first read about Dr. Robert Fisch, I felt drawn to him and wanted to meet him. Dr. Fisch, a native of Hungary, miraculously survived eleven months in Nazi work camps and the Gunskirchen concentration camp in the German forest.
After World War II ended, he completed medical school in Hungary, then came to America in 1957. He eventually became a University of Minnesota professor of pediatrics and an international expert on the metabolic disease PKU (phenylketonuria).
Dr. Fisch’s first book, Light from the Yellow Star: A Lesson of Love from the Holocaust, is illustrated with one of his paintings and introduced by one of the biblical quotes carved on the walls of the Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs in Budapest, Hungary.
Now retired, Dr. Fisch lives in a Minneapolis condo, where he graciously welcomed me and told me his story, which I arranged to have published in the February 2008 issue of The Jewish Magazine, an online journal.
ROBERT O. FISCH, M.D.
Fisch, a retired University of Minnesota professor of pediatrics and an international expert on the metabolic disease PKU (phenylketonuria), survived the two most oppressive totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. A Holocaust survivor, he has been knighted in Hungary for his role in the 1956 revolution against communism. Fisch is also an accomplished artist. Each segment of his first book, “Light from the Yellow Star: A Lesson of Love from the Holocaust,” is illustrated with one of his paintings and introduced by one of the biblical quotes carved on the walls of the Jewish Memorial Cemetery for the Martyrs in Budapest, Hungary. The book is distributed at no cost to interested schools through the Yellow Star Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping educate young people about the Holocaust. Fisch’s subsequent books include, “The Metamorphosis to Freedom,” and “Dear Dr. Fisch: Children’s Letters to a Holocaust Survivor.” For more information, visit yellowstarfoundation.org.
My childhood in Budapest was very happy. My parents worked very hard. I had nice clothes, good food, many friends, and much love. A devout Catholic nurse named Anna Tatrai lived with us and helped raise me. I was taught to respect others’ beliefs and ways of life. I attended Friday service in the synagogue and also Sunday Mass. Just as bridges over the Danube River connect the two parts of my city, Buda and Pest, so it was in my home. Different religions were linked by love and understanding.
On March 19, 1944, nine months after I graduated high school, the Nazis invaded and occupied Hungary because the Hungarian government, which was on the side of Germany, tried to make a separate peace. From that point on, every Hungarian Jew had to wear a four-inch yellow Star of David on their clothing.
I volunteered at the Jewish Counsel, an organization that served as a liaison between the Jews and the German commandant. One day, a very excited man came in and asked to speak to whoever was in charge of the Country Division, where I was working. I brought him to the head of the division’s office, but instead of leaving I stayed inside the door to listen to what he had to say.
The man described how, in the countryside, all the Jews had been taken to a ghetto. And that one day, unexpectedly, everybody from infants to pregnant women to dying cancer patients were taken to the railroad station, crammed into a cattle car without food and water, and sent off to an unknown destination. When I heard this I realized that it was not just a matter of the Nazis not liking us, it was a matter of they were going to kill us.
Until then, I had been very much afraid of the air raids that were going on. But now I recognized there were only two possibilities—the Germans would either lose the war first, or they would kill me first. From then on, I was happy whenever a bomb fell on the city, because I would rather see the Germans’ destruction than my own.
On June 3, 1944, I was sent to a work camp with 280 men from 18 to 48 years old. They fed us well, but were very cruel. When we first arrived, the guards confiscated all our possessions and ripped up our photographs of loved ones. We were told, “You don’t need these pictures anymore because you will never see your family again.” During air raids, we had to stay next to the stored explosives because they said if we were hit, at least the ammunition would not be wasted.
On January 17, 1945, in the dead of winter, thousands of us started to walk on a death march. In one village on the Hungarian border, we were forced to stay for two nights in an oval brick burner building. It was basically a large furnace room where other Jews were also being held. Many of the prisoners were so weak that the room was filled with “crawling skeletons.” The smell of decomposing bodies and human excrement was overpowering. Millions of lice crawled all over us in the dark, and our fingers were soon exhausted from endless scratching.
Two weeks later, an epidemic of typhoid fever, a disease transmitted by lice, broke out. We were in a German village, digging ditches to guard against approaching Russian tanks. I was the first to have a high fever. One by one, prisoners started collapsing around me. At first, the guards started to kick the sick people because they thought we were just pretending to be sick. But it quickly became obvious that it was an epidemic, so they put the sick people in a room in a nearby school building. They provided them with everything possible—medication, good food, and even chocolate, an unheard-of luxury.
Soon, two trucks came to pick up the sick prisoners. The doctor told me that thirty people could go in the truck to the hospital and there were only twenty-nine people in the sick room. He asked if I wanted to go because I was the sickest of everyone. I said, “No, I would rather work, even with the fever.” I did not trust them. It was obvious to me that the Germans didn’t want to cure us in a hospital. That was baloney. They wanted to kill us. The doctor told me I was crazy not to go and that he never wanted to hear me complaining again. Many prisoners who were well volunteered to go in my place but only one “lucky” one was chosen to be number thirty. All were shot at the edge of the village.
The Nazis were very brutal, but sometimes some of the SS soldiers, even the worst ones, showed us compassion when they were apart from their comrades. I was assigned one day to go to work with the cruelest SS soldier. As soon as we got away from the others and nobody saw him, he told us not to do any work. He even gave us the food he had with him. But as soon as we got back, he started to beat us again.
There were other examples. Once during the march, a guard secretly handed out sandwiches. Another time, solders “mistakenly” gave us more food than the ration permitted. It was a rare glimpse of humanity. It was as if vegetation had miraculously appeared on a rock.
We walked from dawn to sunset every day, often without any food or water for days at a time. Anyone who couldn’t walk, who had to sit down, was shot in the head. As we walked through villages, some people gave us food and water, even though it was dangerous for them. One day, in a small village, an Austrian peasant brought a bag of apples to the edge of a fence and started to throw them to us. The reaction of the prisoners was wild. The peasant was immediately shot and killed.
As we climbed toward the mountain pass in the Alps, we were ordered to stop and form lines of five. At the pass, two were randomly shot from each line. As some fell, the rest kept marching. Soon, we arrived at Mauthausen, the largest concentration camp in what is now Austria, but was then part of Germany. Our daily food ration there was a cup of black coffee and a quarter slice of dark bread covered with green fungus.
After just four days, we left Mauthausen because the Russians were nearing the camp. Those who were too weak to walk were put on pallets rigged to horses. When we got to the Gunskirchen concentration camp in the German forest, the exhausted prisoners were thrown directly into open graves, then shot. The barracks at Gunskirchen were packed so tightly that we had to spend each night squatting, crammed together knee to knee. During the night, the weaker prisoners toppled over on others. Many were suffocated.
For the thirty thousand prisoners in Gunskirchen, there was one latrine for twelve men and sixteen women. We could only go there during six specific hours each day. Anyone who urinated or defecated at any other time was executed on the spot. One day, while it was raining, I left the barrack and tried to urinate under my coat. A German noticed me standing there in the rain, although fortunately he didn’t notice me urinating. He beat me with his rifle until I collapsed. I didn’t leave the barrack to urinate again, I can tell you that.
When we found out on May 1 that the Russians had occupied Berlin, we were absolutely ecstatic. But then the next day the Nazis killed us the same as if it were any other day. On the heels of such hope, our despair became even more profound. The end seemed so close, yet so far away. We also learned of a standing order: If enemy troops were approaching, the prisoners would be machine-gunned and the camp burned down.
When the Americans liberated us on May 4, we were all just bone and skin. If it had been another week or so, I wouldn’t have been alive. I’m quite sure of that. I was so weak, I couldn’t even leave the barrack. When I finally could, I had to crawl over steps, since I could not bend down and still keep my balance.
More prisoners died on that liberation day than any other day. It’s like a marathon runner who gets to the very end and then collapses. They ran 26 miles, they were told we won the war, and they collapsed and died. We had known the end was coming—that was the only thing that had kept us going. Otherwise, it would have been hopeless.
The day after we were liberated, the American who found us stopped me and asked me why we were treated like this. I said it’s because we are Jewish. He could not believe it. It was incomprehensible to him that human beings could do this to one another just because they were a different religion.
A few days after we were liberated, a dirty, hungry German soldier came to me, begging for food. I was filled with hatred for the Germans. I wanted to kill them all. But I had to make a choice. I asked myself whether I should do to him what they had done to us, or if I should do what my father would have done. I gave him some food.
Fifty years later, I attended the fiftieth-anniversary celebration of the liberation of the Gunskirchen concentration camp and I talked again with the American who had liberated us. His name is Dale Speckman. He had gotten lost on his jeep in the forest, smelled something horrible, and was curious what it was. When he opened the gate, the prisoners cheered him and crawled on him. He said he could not get the smell off his clothes for weeks. He threw the prisoners his cigarettes and the little food that he had, and they ate the cigarettes. They crawled to the bushes outside the camp and started to eat the leaves. At the anniversary ceremony, Speckman placed a yellow-star wreath at the site.
When I returned to Budapest in July, I went to our home and found my mother there. She had been hiding with Anna, the nurse who had lived with us. It was wonderful to see her again, but emotionally, I was so burned out, I was practically a robot. It took me months before I started to have some feelings again.
Except for my mother, Iren, and older brother, Paul, who had been sent to school in Switzerland in 1938 because of the political unrest, all my relatives were exterminated. An eyewitness told me later of my father’s fate. Before he was taken to a concentration camp my father, Zoltan, gave his food to the needier ones, explaining, “I always have enough.” Eventually, he starved to death. He was so greatly respected in the camp he was in that he was the only one not buried in a common grave. We brought his body back, and he was the first to be buried in the memorial cemetery in Budapest.
They say that one man’s death is a tragedy, one hundred deaths a disaster, one thousand deaths a statistic. Out of 600,000 Hungarian Jews, only 80,000 had survived. At the cemetery where my father is buried, there are many gravestones. As people walk through it, they see one stone that reads, “Here are 10,000.” Another reads, “Here are 20,000.” And so on. At the exit is a stone that reads, “Here is one.” According to the Talmud, “Whoever destroys the life of a single human being, it is as if he had destroyed an entire world.” The death of my father was the death of my world as I knew it.
Today, I have a very interesting life. First of all, I’m an extremely happy person. Experience has shown me that in order to really enjoy things, you have to go through some hardship. The only time you really appreciate your health, for example, is when you are sick—until then, you don’t know what you had. Because of the hardship I went through, I look at every minute as a gift and I enjoy life tremendously. When I put a potato in a microwave, that to me is a joy. For most people, it’s just a potato. At night, however, I still have bad dreams. In my dreams, I’ve died a hundred times. Sometimes I feel like I’m dreaming during the daytime.
Through the Yellow Star Foundation, which was established by a friend of mine, Erwin Kelen, I’ve given hundreds of lectures in schools and other places—mostly in Minnesota but also in Europe and Israel. I tell young people about my experiences in the Nazi death camp so that they can learn from it. Otherwise, I don’t like to talk about it.
In my lectures, I tell students that they have to make a choice. Are they going to be humanistic or animalistic? You cannot expect the world to change, you can only change yourself. And hopefully that will be enough to change others. It’s very rewarding to have such an impact on young people. I’ve received honorary degrees in other countries because of my work in medicine. But this is more important to me.
All of us who were marked by the yellow star were tattooed inside. As survivors, we have a special obligation, not a privilege, in being alive. We must take a stand against suppression and injustice. Our standards have to be based on principles, not practicalities. We who survived are not different from others, we just played a special role in a special time. One night in a dream, I asked God, “Are we the chosen people?” The answer I got back was, “The world turns on its axis and each segment receives an equal share of sunshine.”
Next month, I’m going back to Hungary to give a talk at the Holocaust museum in Budapest. This museum was actually the synagogue I grew up in. On the wall, it reads, “Love your neighbors as you love yourself.” When I returned there last year and saw those words, which had been there when I was growing up, it really shook me and made me cry. Reading it again after all these years meant a very different thing than it did before the war.
I subtitled my first book “A Lesson of Love from the Holocaust” because the Holocaust teaches us that good can be learned from even the worst human tragedies. It is not the ugliness of hate but the beauty of love that survives. What I would like to be remembered is not the horror, but the beauty created by human virtue and how the spirit can be enlightened even in the midst of suffering.
People are often surprised by my attitude toward life. But I ask, what would those silent, slaughtered millions ask us now? To hate and to be unforgiving? Unlikely. I believe they would want us to live with understanding, compassion, and love. The message that I would like to send is: Remain human, even in inhumane circumstances.
Here are Dr. Fisch’s books. I highly recommend them.
Click here to order Light from the Yellow Star: A Lesson of Love from the Holocaust.
Click here to order Fisch Stories: Reflections on Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Click here to order The Metamorphosis to Freedom.
Click here to order The Sky Is Not the Limit.
Click here to order Dear Dr. Fisch: Children’s Letters to a Holocaust Survivor.
Click here to view all my posts featuring Dr. Robert Fisch.
Click here to view all my posts about concentration camp survivors.
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Tags: concentration camp, death march, Gunskirchen, Holocaust Museum, Hungarian Holocaust, Jewish Counsel, Light form the Yellow Star, Nazis, phenylketonuria, PKU, prisoners, Robert Fisch, Russian tanks, SS soldiers, Star of David, The Jewish Magazine, work camp, Yellow Star Foundation