The Beauty of Love Survives
Dr. Robert O. Fisch speaks of lessons from the Holocaust.
On Nov. 10, Dr. Robert O. Fisch, a retired pediatrician, author and artist, delivered a lecture at the SGI-USA Minnesota Buddhist Center titled “Lessons of Love From the Holocaust: Remaining Humane Even in Inhumane Circumstances.” The World Tribune spoke with Dr. Fisch about his life, work and message of humanity.
World Tribune: Dr. Fisch, thank you for speaking with us. What prompted you to begin writing about your experiences in the Holocaust?
Dr. Robert O. Fisch: I escaped from Hungary after I participated in the 1956 revolution and came to America. In 1958, I became a medical intern at the University of Minnesota. When I finished my pediatric training, I studied drawing and painting for 10 years.
Many years later, in 1989, I offered to design cover illustrations for Minnesota Medicine, for which I had written articles. They knew I was a Holocaust survivor and asked whether I could create an illustration about an ethics meeting that discussed the use of experiments from Nazi concentration camps.
I thought about it for a long time. To me, the Holocaust was a personal issue, not a subject of conversation. Who could artistically express the magnitude of human suffering and the horror of the Holocaust? I felt unqualified, but I realized that if I didn’t do it, someone else would.
After that, the editor asked me to write about my own experience in the camps. That was hard to do. When the issue appeared, my Nordic colleagues at the University of Minnesota Hospital did not respond with their usual reserve. Many of them hugged me and cried.
WT: We understand that this marked a turning point in your life.
Dr. Fisch: After the illustration appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, an educator from Pine City, Minnesota, asked me to speak at her school. I spoke to seven parents in a small library about the Nazi occupation of Hungary.
I was working in the country division of the Jewish Council, when, one day, a man came to talk to the head of the division. He described the first loading of all the Jews from their village, regardless of age or health, into boxcars. They were jammed shoulder-to-shoulder, with a bucket of water and without food, only the clothes on their backs.
I explained how, until then, I had been afraid of the air raids. From then on, I was not only unafraid but also euphoric when the bombs came. Either the Nazis would kill me or lose the war. No other alternative remained.
After my speech, a gentleman stood up and said he was a bombardier over Budapest and had always felt guilty about killing innocent people. Now he saw his actions also had another purpose. I later learned that he decided to open up to his family about his war experience after that.
“Stand up for your principles, because compromise is the first step toward actions you eventually regret.”
WT: In 1994, you authored the book Light from the Yellow Star: A Lesson of Love from the Holocaust. What is your central message?
Dr. Fisch: With this book, I want to say that it is not the ugliness of hate but the beauty of love that survives.
After the war, I learned from an eye-witness that my father gave his food to the needier ones before they reached the camp, explaining, “I always have enough.” He hoped to meet with me along the way, but our paths never crossed. My beloved father, who always gave to others, starved to death.
I learned that my father was so greatly respected in the camp that he was the only one not buried in a common grave. When we brought him back, he was the first to be buried in the Jewish Memorial Cemetery for the Martyrs in Budapest.
WT: You wrote once that Holocaust survivors were tattooed by the yellow star inside. What does that mean?
Dr. Fisch: We have a special obligation, not a privilege, in being alive.
One winter during the war, we marched from dawn to sunset at the foot of the Alps, sometimes for days without food or water. One day, we were walking through a village in late afternoon. An Austrian farmer brought a bag of apples and started to throw them toward us. She was shot on sight.
Some of the SS soldiers, when not seen by their comrades, also behaved quite differently. For instance, once during a march, an SS soldier rudely broke the line, then secretly handed out sandwiches. On another occasion, the soldiers “mistakenly” gave out more food than the ration permitted. Humanity could be seen even in a place like that.
WT: Your book has been used by schoolchildren in some countries.
Dr. Fisch: With the help of my friend, Erwin Kelen, the Yellow Star Foundation distributed the book for free to schools in the United States. I have talked in different schools throughout the United States and Europe.
My message is that we can learn goodness even from one of the worst human tragedies. Even among the most sorrowful memories, the humanitarian acts performed by compassionate individuals shine above the dark side of brutality.
My message to the audience, mostly students: Respect others as you expect to be respected. Stand up for your principles, because compromise is the first step toward actions you eventually regret. The only change you can expect in this life is the change you are personally able to make.
Young people growing up in the United States have an incredible opportunity. The future is in their hands, and they can go as far as they are able.
WT: Based on your talks, you published the book Dear Dr. Fisch: Children’s Letters to a Holocaust Survivor, which you have described as the most rewarding experience of your life.
Dr. Fisch: To have a close relationship with a child, a pediatrician has to be with them from infancy through adulthood. In a class, I do not lecture but discuss. Even if only one among the hundred, I might have an impact on someone for a lifetime. Among my first talks at a high school, I asked whether there were any questions. A 14-year-old stood up and asked, “Can I give you a hug?”
The young people of today are just as sensitive, curious and open to learning as at any other time. Our role is not only to love, but also to teach by example moral and human values, and compassion.
WT: What would you like to impart to young people?
Dr. Fisch: If you’re suffocating, you’ll appreciate the air. You have to appreciate every single second of your life. The chance of being born is a statistical impossibility. Just to be here is a gift, which is important to appreciate.
Suffering is part of life. That has to be accepted. In fact, if you don’t suffer, you won’t know how real a gift it is to be alive. To me, the most important thing is to regard everybody—regardless of rank, education, wealth, religion or race—and think of yourself as a thread in a colorful carpet. Without the thread, there is no carpet, and without the carpet, the thread has no function. In the same way, your existence is meaningless without others.
Remain humane even in inhumane circumstances!