Robert Fisch pauses to consider the question. Then, as expected of this deep and gentle man, he offers a surprising answer.
On the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day last week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called the Holocaust, “the most heinous crime in modern human history.”
The April 28 statement was a dramatic departure from Abbas’ 1983 doctoral dissertation, in which he called the Holocaust “the fantastic lie that 6 million Jews were killed,” and claimed that “only” 890,000 Jews were killed by Nazis — chiefly the victims of a Zionist-Nazi plot.
So, does it matter to Fisch, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor whose beloved father starved to death in a Nazi camp, that the words were spoken in 2014? That they were spoken at all? Of course it matters.
“I’ve said this many times,” said 88-year-old Fisch, who was liberated by American troops on May 4, 1945, too weak to walk. “It’s impossible to believe what happened in the Holocaust.
“There’s no words to express it. Survivors cannot tell you what happened, what we witnessed. I can understand denial. How can we understand these things?”
Fisch is seated at the glass dining room table of his elegant condominium overlooking downtown Minneapolis. His free-flowing and brightly colored artwork covers the walls.
He greets his visitors warmly, with hugs and chocolate. Nothing is off limits in a discussion with Fisch, but his answers rarely are sound bites. And his jokes always are corny (if not bawdy).
Here’s a safe one: “You have to love your children,” Fisch deadpans, “even if some of them are yours.”
He breaks into giddy laughter and, frankly, it’s a relief to see a man with his past exhibit such freeing and genuine levity.
For seven decades, Fisch has sought to understand the Holocaust, in which not only Jews perished, but also Gypsies, political opponents, the aged and infirm, gays and mentally disabled.
For years, though, his effort was strictly private, a daily test of emotional survival endured alone.
The Nazis occupied Hungary in March 1944. More than 550,000 Jews were transported to Nazi death camps by Adolf Eichmann, with the assistance of Hungarian authorities.
At 19, the Jewish teenager had finished high school and was preparing for his art studies. He recalls a home life filled with love, and respect of others’ beliefs. He attended Friday night services at his synagogue and Sunday Mass with his lifelong nanny, Anna, who was Catholic.
Within months, that life was over. His father starved to death in a camp. Fisch spent time in two camps, including Gunskirchen, a subcamp of Mauthausen.
After the war, Fisch returned to Budapest, “a burned-out building” of a man, empty and incapable of smiling or shedding tears. He battled depression and suffered from nightmares for years.
His mother emigrated in 1953 to Israel, then moved to the United States in 1957. She died at 86. His brother, who lived in New York, died when he was 94.
Fisch completed medical school in Hungary. After participating in an ill-fated rebellion against the Soviet Union, he emigrated to America in 1957, where he later became a professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota. He is known internationally for his research on PKU, a genetic disease.
Twenty years ago Fisch, the father of one grown daughter, began to look outward. Nothing would change for the better, he realized, until we knew our collective history and started talking to each other, “even if we don’t agree. We are not different.”
Or too different.
Fisch began talking to schoolchildren and found hope in their honesty and genuine curiosity. They were grateful for this unusual man, too. Fisch has received letters from children saying, “ ‘Nobody ever talks to us the way we can talk with you.’ ”
He wrote his first book in 1994, titled “Light from the Yellow Star: A Lesson of Love from the Holocaust.” The small but powerful book recounts his story and features his illustrations, beginning as airy and colorful sketches, then shifting to horrific images of choking red and black smoke. The final images are in color again. Fisch always ends with hope.
His most recent book, “The Sky Is Not The Limit” is a collection of his wit and wisdom.
I’ve pinned my favorite Fisch-ism to my bulletin board at work: “Life is full of problems, with occasional intermissions.”
Fisch, who was knighted for heroism by the Hungarian government in 2000, prefers to focus on, and cherish, those intermissions.
“We must remain humane, even when we face inhumane experiences,” he said. “When I die, I want to look back and know that I did the right thing.”
Natalie Ghaffari, a senior at Eastview High School in Apple Valley, contributed to this column. Natalie is participating in School District 196’s Mentor Program.
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