«Aaron: I know you told me this last time, but my memory is blanking. Where were you born and raised? Rabbi Fischer: I was born in Germany, in a town ...»
Interview with Rabbi Frank Fischer
Aaron Balleisen, April 2010
Aaron: I know you told me this last time, but my memory is blanking. Where were you
born and raised?
Rabbi Fischer: I was born in Germany, in a town called Oppeln. It was in East Germany,
now part of Poland and I was born in 1930.
Aaron: Can you tell me a little bit about your upbringing?
Rabbi Fischer: Yes, I can tell you. Well, let’s see. My father was a physician, a, what do
you call it, pediatrician, a child physician. And he and the family, we were active in the Jewish community in the town. My father was a Gabi in the synagogue, like we have here, you know, who stood at the side when you read Torah. And it was a synagogue where the men sat downstairs and the women sat upstairs. So I used to hang out with my father when I was old enough to come. He was a very successful physician, so that my mother didn’t have to work. I have a younger sister, and both of us were raised by a nanny, so that my mother didn’t have to…she could take us for a walk in the park or play with us. But she didn’t have to pay attention to the everyday goings on with babies. My father also had a nurse that worked in the office with him. And we had a cook. And we had somebody else to clean. I would say, from what I remember, we were very well off.
And every summer we would go to my grandparents’ house, they had a summer home by, if you look at the map, the North Sea, which is up, ok. They had a summer home there and we’d go and we’d spend a month there. And in the winter my parents would go, oh, either to Austria or to Switzerland for three weeks and go skiing. We didn’t go, but that was their thing. And my father would always have somebody to come and, you know, take care of his medical practice while we were gone. Does that tell you a little bit about upbringing, or do you want me to go further?
Aaron: Well that’sRabbi Fischer: That takes care of one and two?
Aaron: That’s actually only question one.
Rabbi Fischer: Oh, ok.
Aaron: What were your experiences with the Nazis and how did they affect your family?
Rabbi Fischer: Mm. Well, the first experience that I remember was that there was a group of laws called Nuremburg laws, which delineated the contact between Jews and the general population. So, for example, Jewish physicians could only have Jewish patients.
Jewish lawyers could only have Jewish clients. Jewish shopkeepers, like if you were selling hardware or clothing, could only have Jewish… couldn’t sell to the general community. Ok? This all started, oh in 1935, ’36. Before that everything was fine. I mean, when I was two and three years old I’d go with my parents on vacation and stuff like that, no problem. Hitler came to power in what, 1933 I think, and then started what they call the Nuremburg Laws, was gradual separation between Jews and general community. And to top it all off was that Jewish children could not go to school in the regular school system. So the Jewish community of our town set up a one-room schoolhouse in the basement of an apartment house. And so it took children from age seven on up. I remember we all sat in one room. I don’t know, maybe about the size of this room, maybe like this, including the side lobby. But since there were people from seven years old up we had one teacher, an elderly gentleman who would walk up and down the aisles and across the rows and would constantly tell us just to keep quiet.
Whenever anybody would rustle or make a noise or anything we were just told to stop.
So I had absolutely no education. None. No kindergarten. No pre-kindergarten. No nursery school. No first grade. No second grade. Until I came to America.
I came to America in 1939, so I was eight and a half. January 1939. Well, when you’re eight and a half or nine years old you belong where? The third grade. They put me in the third grade. I had had no education before that. For the rest of my family, well, came November 1938, there was a night call “Crystal Night.” This was otherwise known in English as “The Night of the Broken Glass.” And on that night, I think it was triggered off by an event, some, I don’t remember all the details, easy to look up, that some German official was killed by somebody and they accused a Jew of having done it. And as a result the punishment was for all the Jews in Germany that two things happened.
That all the synagogues were set on fire and all of the Jewish stores and offices had their windows broken. That’s why they called it the night of the broken glass. And on that night, they also started to arrest Jewish men.
Rabbi Fischer: To take them off to a labor camp. And one of my father’s former German patients came and knocked on our door and said, “If you know what’s good for you, you will pack something quick and get out of here because the Gestapo is right behind me.” Aaron: The what?
Rabbi Fischer: The Gestapo, the Nazi officials, right behind me. Ok?
Aaron: Oh, yes.
Rabbi Fischer: So, my father packed a little suitcase and took off. We already had tickets to come to America in January 1939 and this was November ’38, so there were three months there. So he took off. He had no idea whether anybody was going to catch him.
He took off by foot and by bus and by train, and he made his way from East Germany all the way to the Atlantic port where he managed to get a ticket to get on a ship headed for America. Now, I should tell you that in those days, the only way you could get in to America, because it was right after the Depression, they didn’t want any foreigners in the country. So the only way you could come into the country was if you knew somebody in the United States who would be willing to vouch for you, who would say, “I promise that these people will not get into financial difficulties.” And that’s the only way you could get a visa to come into America. They didn’t have anything such as, like now we have the illegal immigrants. They didn’t have any such that I know about. So my father found, and I to this day don’t know how he did it, he found a far distant cousin living in Louisiana who my father had never met, who none of us had every met, and he was quite well-to-do and he had owned a department store in Louisiana and he said, “Oh I’ll vouch for them.” And not only did he vouch for us, but he vouched for two of my father’s brothers. So that’s how we got to come. So my father went early in the end of 1938 to America. I had no idea, none of us did, if we would ever see him again. We had no way, we didn’t have cell phones, ok? He had no way to get in touch with us. It wasn’t until January 1939, when we arrived, my mother, my sister and I arrived in America that my father was waiting for us.
So the effect of all this stuff. The first thing I would say, it was very scary. And it was very scary for my mother to be left with two small children; my sister’s four years younger than I am. So, with my father gone and having no idea where he was, not having any idea what would happen to us while we remained there, and so every time there was a noise outside in the street or in the apartment house that she had no idea that was going on, she would shove me and my sister under the bed and told us to be quiet. We spent a lot of time under the bed. A lot of time under the bed.
Aaron: Sounds like fun. (Said with considerable irony.)
Rabbi Fischer: It sounds like fun. But it wasn’t fun. It was not fun. It was very scary.
When you’re in the room and the noise and my mother was terrified that the German police would come knocking at the door and come for her and us. She didn’t know that they really weren’t interested in the women at the time, or the children. They were only interested in the men. And they had no idea that my father was gone. So luckily they didn’t come for us. So for three months we lived, what do they say? On pins and needles.
And finally my mother had a sister who lived in Berlin. We finally packed up all our stuff and went to Berlin to be with my aunt, because that was easier to get to the harbor than go all the way across Germany at the last minute. It was in January of 1939 that my mother and my sister and I, we set sail on the U.S.S. Manhattan for America and the rule is that once you get on an America ship, it’s like being in America. So we were really safe. Once we made it on the ship, we were safe.
So, more of how else it affected us? Well, besides being scared, it’s pretty damn difficult to be separated from your father.
Aaron: I probably agree with that. I mean, when my mom, last summer, went to Africa for two months… I know what you mean.
Rabbi Fischer: Yeah. So, and the other thing, there’s no war right now in South Africa.
Aaron: And you know that you’re going to have a mom when she’s back in two months.
Rabbi Fischer: Right. We had no idea that we would ever see my father again. None. So that’s, I mean, it’s very hard to put into words. It was top of the scary. You know, it wreaks havoc with your family. The uncertainty. The danger. And they have no security.
And they have nobody to turn to. It just was very difficult. Ok?
Aaron: Ok. You sort of answered question three in the process of answering question two. And you also answered question four. When you were still in Europe, how did you feel about being Jewish?
Rabbi Fischer: Wow. That is a… wow. Hmm. Number one, I was a little kid. I was younger than you. I was, well like I said, the first five or six year of my life there weren’t any problems. I had no idea this was going to turn around and they were going to come hunting Jews. So I grew up, really, in a family where it was pretty good to be Jewish. We celebrated all the Jewish holidays. Like I said my father was active in the synagogue. So we had a very strong Jewish home. And I thought that was normal. Nobody ever thought, at least not in our family, that we would give up being Jewish. Being Jewish… there was no way to give up being Jewish. You couldn’t fool the Nazis anyways, you know. The Nazis thought, the Germans thought, that if your great grandmother or great grandfather was Jewish, you were Jewish. So you couldn’t suddenly say, “Well, the Fischers are not really Jewish.” We had been Jewish for awhile, generations. And my father was very proud of being Jewish. He would never think of hiding the fact that we were Jewish. He did say, “Well, being Jewish, we can’t stay here.” And made plans to leave Germany.
There were some Jews, a number of Jews, perhaps even many Jews, who didn’t believe it could ever get as bad as it got. The Jews had been in Germany for generations. They had good jobs in the professions, in academia, in medicine, in law. They were judges. They weren’t directly in the government, but in the department stores and things like that. So they thought, we are really well into German society. There were many Jews who said, “We’re Germans first and Jewish second.” They tried to prove their loyalty to Germany, trying to think, “Well if I can really show them that I am loyal to Germany, then nothing will happen.” Well, that turned out to beAaron: Wrong?
Rabbi Fischer: Wrong. Really wrong. The Germans, the Nazis didn’t care one iota how long you had been Jewish or what job you had or whatever. They just, they were determined that they were going to get rid of the Jews in Germany and then in Europe no matter what it took.
Aaron: Did you ever think that being Jewish you had unfair disadvantages?
Rabbi Fischer: Well, that didn’t come into play as a little child. My father, here he was a very successful physician, so I didn’t sense there was an unfair disadvantage that early on. But later on, as I got older, I used to think- I mean, what did we do as Jews to get picked on like that? And then I’ve been stimulated by you to do some reading and I found some material that anti-Semitism goes all the way back to the Bible. So that this is not a, you know, there were the Crusades, and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. So this is not a new phenomenon. This was just the culmination of… nothing has ever been that bad, as far as I know. You know, what did I do as a Jew to get picked on? I have no idea.
There is the saying that Jews killed Jesus. Does anti-Semitism derive from Jews killing Jesus? I don’t know, that’s one theory.
Aaron: We talked about some others, like there were Jews using Christian blood toRabbi Fischer: Yeah, there were all kinds of these stories around. They’re really none of them true. None of them true. It is true that society always looks for a scapegoat. Do you know what a scapegoat is? Somebody or something to blame your troubles on. You know, it’s my brother’s fault or it’s the weather or the radio doesn’t work or I didn’t hear the telephone or whatever. We’re always looking for a way out. So in society there are certain groups that have been targeted over generations as scapegoats. The Jews are one of them. People of color are another. Asian folks are another. Poor people are another.
People who don’t live in our neighborhood can be.
Aaron: Without a huge reason.
Rabbi Fischer: Right. Now it also happened in history, Jews were often in very targetable positions in the economic situation. They were the in-between person, between the workers and the owners. Very often you couldn’t be an owner. But if you’re the manager, you get to be the target of all the people underneath you. So that also led to antiSemitism. And then there’s also all kinds of misinformation about- and Jews, I mean if you think about it, in some ways, we Jews are different. We don’t celebrate Christmas.
We don’t celebrate Easter. Some of us don’t eat ham and shellfish.
Aaron: I don’t.
Rabbi Fischer: So that makes us different, ok. Some of us, we use Hebrew in the service.
Some of us wear yamakas as men when we pray and our day of rest is Shabbat and not on Sunday. As they say, Jewish traditions walk to a tune of a different drum. And if you’re different, you get picked on.
Aaron: If you try to act similar, you also get picked on.
Rabbi Fischer: Yes, you also get picked on.
Aaron: Going back to you’re entry into the U.S., how were you treated when you entered the country?