Concentration camp survivor Edward David Fischman arrived alone in Minnesota in 1949.
The Polish Jew, still distressingly thin after a Nazi-led death march through Bavaria and years as a slave laborer, had lost his wife and his mother — nearly his entire family — in the Holocaust.
He took a job in a St. Paul stockroom and proceeded to lived modestly for the next half-century, quietly amassing millions in real estate holdings and investments that he hoped one day would fund a scholarship to build the nation of Israel and strengthen the Jewish people.
Last month, dozens of Israel’s brightest young minds gathered in Jerusalem in Fischman’s name, both in gratitude and with some questions about the largely unknown Minnesotan who devoted his fortune to their future.
In the last two decades, the E. David Fischman Scholarship has awarded $3.1 million to 71 Israelis pursuing doctorates at American universities such as Harvard, Yale and Stanford. Scholarship alumni have gone on to become entrepreneurs, law professors, a judge, Israel’s national public defender, a military leader and a deputy in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Upon his death in 1996, Fischman directed most of his assets to the creation of the scholarship. He envisioned it as akin to a Fulbright scholarship program for Israel.
“The phrase ‘Never again’ was very real for him. He was not willing to see the Jewish people defenseless. He believed very deeply in a strong Israel as he understood it,” said Mendota Heights Rabbi Morris Allen, who is on the scholarship committee.
Fischman stipulated that scholarships should cover the entire cost of schooling, that all recipients should complete their compulsory service in the Israeli military and that they should gather for a conference every 20 years. The November meeting in Jerusalem was their first ever.
“It’s one of the best kept secrets. We are trying to get the word out,” said Dan Mogelson, scholarship administrator with the Jewish Federation of Greater St. Paul and one of about two dozen Minnesotans who attended the conference.
The endowment is now around $8 million. In addition to the scholarship, money goes to Twin Cities Jewish schools and camps, Mogelson said.
But as the scholarship’s reputation grew, more questions were raised about its mysterious patron. No one could find a photograph of Fischman for the Jerusalem conference. No one knew his wife’s name. Some believed he had spoken of losing a child in the Holocaust, but that remains unclear.
“I knew he was a survivor from the Holocaust. I knew he had played the cello. I didn’t know a lot more about him, to be honest,” said Allen, who met Fischman at the end of life and presided over his funeral attended by about a dozen people, just enough for the traditional Jewish death rites.
A remarkable story
It turned out that Fischman had at least one living American relative, who was able to provide photos and fill in some of the blanks after the Star Tribune tracked him down.
Fischman’s “story was quite remarkable,” said Dan Sadoff, a St. Paul veterinarian. “Most of it I never heard until not long before he died. He didn’t talk about it. … He was not easy to get along with at all, but he was one of my best friends.”
Then there were things Sadoff didn’t know about, such as the scholarship. “I think that is remarkable,” he said.
Fischman was born in Warsaw in August 1910, but Sadoff said he believed Fischman was older than that and lied about his age to survive the war. “Creating that myth helped save his life,” Sadoff said.
Fischman’s father was a violin maker and repairman and two of his brothers played in the Warsaw Symphony, Sadoff said. He had several siblings, including a sister who converted to Catholicism before World War II so she could get a job and avoid persecution.
Fischman attended trade school and became what Sadoff called a manufacturing engineer, making construction hardware such as knobs and hinges for doors. Little is know about his wife, Genya Rosenblatt, but the couple lived with Fischman’s mother.
Allen said he believes Fischman spoke of having a child who died during the war, and that the loss of that child may have inspired the scholarship.
“In some ways, he thought, with a scholarship program this is what his own child could have become: an educated leader,” Allen said.
Sadoff said he found no evidence Fischman had a child, but that there were many things he simply would not talk about. “He never answered any questions I asked him, but things would come out in conversation,” Sadoff said.
As the Nazis targeted Jews in Poland, Fischman lost his business and then his family. “He came home from work and found his apartment empty,” Sadoff said.
After the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943, Fischman was imprisoned and eventually taken to the Flossenburg concentration camp in Bavaria, where he worked in an armaments factory. His job skills and feigned youth made him of value to the Nazis and likely saved his life, Sadoff said.
As American forces approached Flossenburg in spring 1945, the Nazis forced more than 20,000 inmates on a death march through the snow to the Dachau concentration camp. Fischman told Sadoff that he was part of that march. In a briefcase in Fischman’s home, Sadoff said he found a transcript of testimony that he had given to an international war tribunal after the war.
Fischman immigrated to St. Paul in the late 1940s because his aunt, Sadoff’s grandmother, lived in St. Paul. He soon found work in the stockroom at Lax Electric, saved his money and starting buying property “as soon as he could,” Sadoff said.
A multifamily building on Marshall Avenue in St. Paul was the first in a portfolio of rental properties that Fischman amassed over his lifetime. One of them was a house at Summit Avenue and Dale Street in St. Paul, where he occupied one unit and rented out the rest.
“It’s the only thing to buy that means anything,” Fischman once said of real estate, according to Sadoff.
‘An amazing legacy’
Fischman was conservative politically and supremely confident of his positions on politics and world affairs. He believed in a hawkish Israel.
And he believed in Hebrew traditions. “He took it to heart,” said Sadoff. “He said, ‘You have to believe in Israel. You have to go to the temple.’ ”
He played the cello, which was prominently displayed in his modest home, and at one time was a member of a string quartet and civic orchestra.
The next generation was one of Fischman’s few soft spots, Sadoff recalled: “He liked children. At the same time, he didn’t know anything about them.”
In his later years, Fischman joined the Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights and attended Allen’s Tuesday study group.
“He was a blunt human who believed deeply in his ideas. He was a smart guy,” Allen said. “He had strong opinions. He didn’t like people who disagreed with him. He would get easily put off if someone … was willing to go toe to toe.”
Mogelson never met Fischman, but said that his vision, careful saving and planning were a testament to his character and his hope in the future.
“Somebody who lived through what he lived through, you can respect that they would not be all smiles to deal with. He had this vision of what this could be,” Mogelson said. “He lived through hell to offer an amazing legacy gift.”
Staff librarian John Wareham contributed to this report.