Lessons of Love

To remain human under inhumane circumstances – that is the lesson Dr. Robert Fisch conveys in essays and illustrations from the Holocaust.

By: Susan Van Dongen
   When you talk about a life-altering, joyous experience, cooking a starchy vegetable is not exactly up there with hang gliding at the Grand Canyon or claiming the winning ticket in a multi-million-dollar lottery.
   Dr. Robert O. Fisch would disagree.
   "When I put a potato in the microwave, it’s a gift," he says. "It’s not something I take for granted."
   The 77-year-old professor of pediatrics, acclaimed visual artist and author is a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. When he realized he had lived through this horror, he vowed to feel joyous and grateful for small, everyday things in life — as well as life itself. He also made a promise to himself and to the memory of his late father to try to feel compassion for others, even his enemies.
   "I’m a happy person," Dr. Fisch says. "I’m not depressed, not these days. I enjoy life enormously."
   In a way, he is almost grateful for his experience in World War II, because it has brought him wisdom. For many years, Dr. Fisch wondered whether there was an appropriate medium to describe the Holocaust. As a teacher, he wanted to create a learning tool to help younger generations better understand the Holocaust and hopefully prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again.
   The result was his collection of essays and artwork, Light From the Yellow Star: A Lesson of Love from the Holocaust (Yellow Star Foundation). First published in 1994, the book has been used extensively in the United States and Hungary — Dr. Fisch’s native country — for Holocaust education. Original gouache paintings and excerpts of text from the book will be exhibited at the Museum of the American Hungarian Foundation in New Brunswick through June 9.
   The combination of Dr. Fisch’s striking artwork and eloquent essays walks readers through his personal experiences in a Nazi work camp, as well as picking up the pieces of his family’s shattered life after the war ended. This might seem utterly bleak at first, but there is something so kind about this man’s spirit that hope and optimism shine through instead.
   "The purpose of this book is not to make a memento of this horror, but to know it and learn from it," Dr. Fisch writes. "With this book, I want to say that it is not the ugliness of hate but the beauty of love which survives in time."
   Even though he is approaching his 80th birthday, Dr. Fisch travels throughout the U.S. and to Hungary to talk to high school and college students about his experiences, giving a couple of presentations every week. Teen-agers and young adults are notoriously jaded, but Dr. Fisch thinks his message is reaching them.
   "Oh, absolutely," he says. "It’s incredible how young people perceive it. You have to interact with them personally and respect them, though. You need to show them something like this. I’m not just telling them the history, I’m giving them something from the inside. Otherwise, the Holocaust would just be history and young people wouldn’t always get the message.
   "The subtitle is ‘A Lesson of Love from the Holocaust.’ It’s a contradictory thing, because you’d think lessons from the Holocaust would conjure feelings of hatred, mistrust and a desire for revenge. I try to think of what the slaughtered millions would ask of us now. Would they want us to embrace the same qualities that led to their demise? I don’t think so. I believe they would want us to have understanding, compassion and love. The message I would like to send is ‘remain human — even in inhumane circumstances.’"
   Dr. Fisch primarily used black and red in the paintings for the book and, of course, yellow for the six-pointed star. The black symbolizes darkness, suffering and waiting, and the red represents the shedding of blood. A small caricature of a crying face peers out from one of the pages. The artist notes that this is the only depiction of a face in the entire book, but there are lots of hands, asking for help or begging for mercy. One painting shows a hand being stepped on by a large military-style boot.
   There is hope in some of the paintings, though. When Dr. Fisch writes of the war’s end, the accompanying painting shows a rainbow peeking out from a chasm of black. Another portrays a hand reaching from his father’s grave, offering a beautiful, red rose.
   Although his mother and brother survived the war, most of his other relatives vanished. His beloved father starved in one of the death camps, and Dr. Fisch still mourns that loss. The elder Fisch is remembered as a leader in his community and a heroic figure, even while imprisoned by the Nazis.
   "He was so greatly respected that he was the only one not buried in a common grave," Dr. Fisch writes. "We brought him back, and he was the first to be buried in the Jewish Memorial Cemetery for the Martyrs in Budapest.
   "When the young people see the illustrations (in the book) and read the quotes, I want them to have a sense about how I feel when I walk through this cemetery. The real story cannot be told because those people cannot tell anymore."
   One of the most striking images features a black, cracked numeral "1" with a series of numbers painted on it, increasing from 100 to 20,000 to six million. This painting has special significance to Dr. Fisch, and he had hoped it would be on the book’s cover.
   "Whether you talk about the 4,000 people who died at the World Trade Center or the six million who died in the concentration camps, the only thing you can understand is the death of that person you loved," he says. "The death of my father was the death of the world as I had known it before. The loss of more than one person, even if multiplied by six million, cannot be measured in mathematical terms."
   A native of Budapest, Dr. Fisch returned to Hungary after World War II to finish medical school. He arrived in America on Jan. 1, 1957 — "a new country, a new life," he says.
   He became a medical intern at the University of Minnesota in 1958 and has been at the university ever since. He has been a professor of pediatrics since 1979 and is internationally known for his clinical research on genetic disease. He studied art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest as well as the Walker Art Center, the University of Minnesota and the College of Art and design — all in Minneapolis. Dr. Fisch has a shaped a distinguished second career as a prize-winning artist, illustrator and cartoonist.
   Late in life, a third career has blossomed as well — teaching the lessons reflected in Light from the Yellow Star, as well as his second book, The Metamorphosis to Freedom.
   "This, to me, is the most important thing in my life," he says. "It’s more important than medicine because I’m forming the future character of these young people."
Light From the Yellow Star: A Lesson of Love from the Holocaust, paintings and essays from the book by Dr. Robert O. Fisch, is at the Museum of the American Hungarian Foundation, 300 Somerset St., New Brunswick, through June 9. Museum hours: Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Sun. 1-4 p.m. Suggested donation: $5. For information, call (732) 846-5777. For information about the book, call (612) 376-7322. On the Web: www.yellowstarfoundation.org