As a journalist, I sometimes have the privilege of being with one of the giants who, often quietly, walk among us.
Dr. Robert Fisch, a giant, and I were having lunch at a downtown Minneapolis restaurant last week. Fisch — a Holocaust survivor, a knight in his native Hungary, an honored pediatrician at the University of Minnesota, a painter, a writer — is now in his 80s and has been retired for about a decade.
He was talking about something deep, something meaningful, and then a lovely woman walked by our table.
Fisch stopped in mid-profundity and watched her.
“One of the reasons I love this place,” he said of the restaurant. “The scenery is always beautiful. Oh, one of the blessings of my life: My vision still is good.”
The word “vision” reminded him of a joke about an old physician:
“Are you still seeing patients?” the woman asks the doctor.
“Yes, but not as well as I used to,” the doctor responds.
More laughter from Fisch. Another story about vision and beauty.
“You know what Groucho Marx said,” said Fisch. ” ‘I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll try to make an exception.’ “
More laughter from the good doctor. Laughter is so important.
As Fisch writes in his newest book, “Fisch Stories, Reflections on Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”:
“We make every effort to avoid pain or even minimal discomfort. But how can we appreciate joy without knowing suffering? Suffering is a part of the learning experience. Suffering has made me appreciate everyday existence.”
His little book is full of big ideas about everything from the horror of a concentration camp to our culture’s battle with obesity to the wonder of children, but you will not find it at the Barnes & Noble. But it is available through Itascabooks.com and Amazon.com.
The things Fisch has accomplished and seen and touched represent the extremes of humanity.
He was 19 on June 4, 1944, when he, along with 280 other young men, was marched away from his home near Budapest to a Nazi train that carried them to a forced labor camp. Six months later, with the Russian army closing in, the laborers began a “death march” to a concentration camp, Mauthausen, and then on to an extermination camp, Gunskirchen.
He experienced and witnessed cruelty beyond description and yet he appears to be without bitterness. How can that be?
It is a question he has wrestled with since being liberated by American troops on May 4, 1945. It is a question he constantly is asked by students during visits to Minnesota classrooms.
“I cannot forgive,” he said. “That is not within my power; not my right.”
He turns to words he uses with junior and senior high school students, words he used in a lecture before a 1994 showing of some of his art at the Weisman Art Museum.
“What could those silent, slaughtered millions ask of us now? To hate? The very qualities that led to their demise? Not likely.”
His personal lesson: “Every day is a holiday,” he said. “Every day is a gift. Celebrate.”
He held up a piece of bread.
“It is beautiful,” he said.
Liberation from the concentration camp led to his return to Hungary and the news that his beloved father had been among the millions who did not survive. It also put him under another form of brutal repression, the rule of the Soviet Union. By 1956, he was a young physician and a player in the courageous, though short-lived, Hungarian revolution against Soviet power. He performed surgery on the wounded and participated in a daring run to Austria for food and medical supplies.
Decades later, after his 1957 escape from Hungary to the United States, he received a medal and knighthood from Hungary for his “heroic actions” during the revolution.
Says Fisch of the honor: “A medal is preferable to hanging, but the real heroes are those who gave their lives.”
Over the decades at the University of Minnesota, he won many honors, especially for his ground-breaking work on phenylketonuria (PKU), a genetic disorder that leads to retardation. But rather than writing of his own work, he is more apt to write about the face of a dying child patient, his “Angel,” who smiled with joy when she learned she’d be able to leave the hospital and return home for Christmas.
Writes Fisch of Angel: “I told her she could go home for Christmas. Her face was radiant with joy. Her eyes sparkled, her pain temporarily abated. Going out the door, she turned back: ‘Happy Christmas, Dr. Fisch. I will send you something special.’ ”
At the restaurant, he told the story of Angel, smiling at the memory of her.