I interviewed Anna Fischer over the Summer of 1983, in her home in Los Angeles. At that time, she was in her early 60s. When World War II broke out, she was fresh out of secondary school, a young woman of eighteen. A young woman of eighteen in most western countries, then or now, would be going off for a higher education, getting her first full-time job, or looking toward marriage or her independence. These are those optimistic years in a young woman’s life when she has great hopes for the future and dreams to fulfill. But this wasn’t the case for Anna Lipszyc Fischer, a Jewish girl born, raised, and living in Poland on September 1, 1939.
Being Jewish has its own characteristics and challenges, both intrinsically and those externally beset upon a Jew by the rest of the world, differing in intensity only in time and place. But to say that this time and this place for Anna was challenging belies its definition. Anna’s struggle for life during those horrific years demanded extreme and daring measures to escape the ubiquitous throes of death.
In this series of interlocutor and first-person narration, I try to convey Anna’s actual personality not only by what she said but how she said it. I therefore keep to her words and sentences and the demeanor in which she spoke them, transcribing her oral delivery onto the written page be it grammatically correct or not. English was her fourth language and one she adopted as an adult. I also try to avoid interruption of the flow by omitting most of the questions I posed during those interviews.
Her boyfriend before the war and husband after, Benno Fischer, also suffered greatly at the hands of the Germans, dodging death. Being such a vital part of her life, both before and after, I felt it only right to include a brief sketch of his experience during that period.
They were among the few who survived. Despite anyone’s efforts, fate had the final say.
“Hashem said to Moses, ‘Behold, you will lie with your forefathers, but this people will rise up and stray after the gods of the foreigners of the Land, in whose midst it is coming, and it will forsake Me and annul My covenant that I have sealed with it. My anger will flare against it on that day, and I will forsake them; and I will conceal My face from them, and they will become prey, and many evils and distresses will encounter it” (Deuteronomy 31:16,17).
The all too familiar sequence throughout Jewish history with its devastating consequences once again ran its course. When the gates of the “ghettos” are opened and restrictions lifted, the new freedoms impart a sense of equality within our host nations. Masses of Jews rush into the broader landscape casting aside their peoplehood, their religion, their way of life, their culture, their heritage: their identity. No longer forced to be set apart, stigmatized, and hated, or so it seems, the illusion always culminates in disappointment and tragedy. No matter where; no matter when.
“Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9).
THE BACK STORY
The Age of Reason, also known as the Enlightenment (mid 1600s-mid 1800s), was a period when G-d, reason, and humanity were radically challenged and redirected. This intellectual movement revolutionized dependency on absolute monarchy and G-d in exchange for man’s individual reasoning based on his existential experience. Its impact resulted in a radical upheaval in how people viewed religion and how nations were ruled. Man was shepherded away from G-d and religion and increasingly toward individualism, rationalism, and nationalism, with empirical science as the definitive source. Thus, it was to be man’s reasoning powers alone that would determine right from wrong, good from evil, and man’s purpose on earth.
“Liberté, Equalité, Fraternité!” the loud cry of Robespierre during the French Revolution, was the motto encompassing the ideals that reshaped the world. In 1789 the French National Assembly adopted the Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen, which established that “all men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” This had significant ramifications for the French populace. Yet for the Jews, there was a caveat. They were considered alien, an anomaly within the French population. The Declaration was interpreted differently for this group if it applied at all.
Citizenship for the Jews was conditional, subject to their relinquishing certain religious, social, and economic practices such as Jewish burial procedures, Jewish apartness, and others. Even if they “proved worthy,” hostility toward Jews was a constant, and often local and regional jurisdictions continued to restrict their personal freedoms. It wasn’t until the early part of the 19th century that Jews were officially granted the same rights as the other French citizens. To integrate into the French culture, many Jews assimilated by bifurcating their Jewish identity into religion or ethnicity. Eventually that, too, failed.
As the fervor of the Enlightenment swept across Europe entrenching itself in the various nations and cultures, in its wake of influence another cultural and religious revolution took place. Originating in Germany toward the end of the 18th century, the Haskalah, as it is known, had a cataclysmic effect on the Jewish population. The restrictions particular to the Jews were lifted. Not only were they allowed to reside outside of their confined areas, but they were also now free to attend public schools and universities. They could enter trades, occupations, and professions previously denied them. They were no longer subject to unique taxation simply because they were Jews. They could participate in the arts and sciences, and were cautiously, but never completely, tolerated in parts of German society. Although the Enlightenment was born in France, it was the accompanying rise of the Jewish Haskalah initiated in Germany that had the most pronounced effect on the Jews.
With personal freedoms and social and economic opportunities now available to them, the Maskilim, as its adherents were called, initially had the objective of maintaining their inherent group adhesion while integrating into the society in which they lived. Some of these changes resulted in substituting the study of the Torah and Talmud for secular subjects; adopting new mannerisms regarding dress and customs to blend in; and tempering or completely modifying their Judaism-based values to accommodate the zeitgeist of the times. This exchange for foreign standards and a forfeiture of their own meant a sharp deviation from their tradition, religion, and way of life. Intoxicated with these new freedoms, most German Jews eventually succumbed to the offerings.
Many took the plunge vigorously and immediately, wanting to fade into the German culture. To these Jews, the Jewish religion was considered outdated, the culture outlandish, and their Jewish birthright obstructive. They sought freedom from religion and from its responsibilities. Many Jews tried to deny their distinctiveness by denouncing their affiliation or by outright converting. But to the non-Jew, this held little sway.
THE NEW RELIGION
With certain aspects of Judaism viewed as being incompatible with the Jew in his new position in Western society, coupled with the troubling development of so many Jews converting to Christianity, the Reform movement advanced its solution. The first Reform temple was dedicated in Seesen, Germany in 1810. Seeking to resemble a church, the temple’s leader introduced the organ, a mixed choir, German songs, German prayers, and even robes worn by the German Christian clergy. Later the Reform congregation in Berlin advocated abolishing circumcision, the donning of a prayer shawl, the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, using the Hebrew language, the belief in the Messiah, and mentioning Jerusalem or the land of Israel in the temple services, and even advocated changing the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday.
This Reform movement abolished the fundamental pillar of a G-d-given Judaism and issued forth the tenet that the Bible was a man-made scholarly work and merely G-d-inspired. Rather than being G-d-centered, it gave personal autonomy to the individual to conceptualize his or her own understanding and practice of religion. This approach accommodated the Enlightenment theory of a “theology” based on intellect and reason. This new form of religion was to guide Jews in the same moral principles as Christianity, which ironically had gleaned its fundamental values and morals from Judaism.
POLAND and the PALE
Jews had been living in Poland and Eastern Europe for centuries, but in the mid-1300s the king of Poland, Kazimierz the Great, invited the Jews to help develop the relatively new nation-state. He offered them unprecedented rights, privileges, and protection. Expelled from England, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal, Poland became an appealing destination. Initially Jews were allowed relative freedom to govern themselves, to practice their religion, and to engage in a wider range of trades. Jewish life flourished as did Jewish scholarship. But even during these relatively good times, Jews were not warmly received by the Poles.
Christianity had come late to Poland and the clergy, steeped in antisemitism, spewed hatred and blame for deicide. The townspeople despised the Jews for being competitors. The peasants hated them both on religious grounds and as tax collectors, one of the few occupations allowed or forced upon them. As early as 1399 with this new arrival of Jews, Polish Christians unleashed their antisemitic rage, torturing and burning Jews at the stake under false pretense. But an excuse was never necessary, nor was it the impetus to rile up such frenetic hatred. As Poland’s borders grew and shrunk from its incursions and partitions during the 18th century between the Russian and Prussian Empires, so did its treatment, oppression, and persecution of Jews wax and wane by the Russians, Cossacks, and the Poles themselves.
Between 1791 and 1915, the largest concentration of Jews was found in Eastern Europe where they were relegated to live in the Pale of Settlement under the sovereignty of the Russian Empire. The Pale encompassed a large portion of eastern Poland, the Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, parts of eastern Latvia, and some parts of western Russia. Within the Pale, Jews were further restricted to reside and work in only certain designated towns and small villages, as well as being prohibited from even traversing many neighboring areas.
THE ANTIDOTE to the HASKALAH
With the absolutism of the Czarist regime and its hold on feudalism, along with a strong adherence to the Church well into the 20th century, the Enlightenment only seeped into Eastern Europe gradually. Subsequently, the Haskalah had a more limited effect on the Jews residing there. The Jews lived in extreme poverty and suffered greatly under relentless and violent hostility.
While the secular Jews in Germany were reinventing the Jewish religion based on secular humanism, agnosticism, or atheism, an antidote to save Judaism and the Jewish people developed in Poland and spread to the rest of Eastern Europe. Two distinct movements came about exploring the depths of traditional Judaism. Although these approaches differed, Judaism was not compromised.
In eighteenth-century Poland, a great spurt of energy and enthusiasm for Torah Judaism spewed forth in the developments of Chassidus and the Mussar movements. Chassidus had a joy-inspired approach with emphasis on particular aspects of Judaism, including teachings of Kabbalah. The Mussar movement’s educational approach to Judaism accentuated ethical and spiritual disciplines. These new methods rekindled the spirits of the 18th-century downtrodden Jews and remain compelling today.
In the late 1700s there were almost a dozen Jews living in Lodz, a city about 85 miles from Warsaw. By 1820 the Jewish population had increased to 259. With enough Jews to form and support a community, the essential synagogue, a cemetery, and a school were established. Under Russian rule, restrictions varied and were alternately imposed and rescinded. The Czar granted Jews more freedoms in Lodz to advance its development and economy. In 1848 certain restrictions were eased and Jews were allowed to live freely anywhere in the city with the stipulation they would assimilate. Some of the specific criteria placed upon the Jews were: they had to speak Polish, French, or German; send their children to public schools; and not wear traditional Jewish clothing.
Occupations opened to them, and as merchants, bankers, factory owners, and reliable blue-collar workers Jews became highly instrumental and a vital force in growing Lodz into a major industrial and economic center. Yet antisemitism was always prevalent, and uprisings did occur. But with these leniencies, Lodz became attractive to Jews and by 1897 they numbered nearly 99,000.
World War I devastated Lodz. Prior to the War, Jews were an integral part of the prominent textile industry, but after the War, new anti-Jewish policies were initiated. Despite these new limitations, the Jewish community grew. A kosher slaughterhouse and a ritual bath facility were established. Education for the poor was instituted. A soup kitchen, orphanages, and societies for visiting the sick were developed. Yeshivas, a Jewish gymnasium, a Yiddish school, a Jewish school for girls, vocational schools, Jewish organizations, and cultural entities established Lodz as a vibrant Jewish enclave. The Jewish population of Lodz grew to about 233,00, the second largest Jewish community in Europe.
This promising setting was not long lived. In the 1930s, virulent Nazi propaganda established its footing in Poland. Organized attacks became prevalent by 1933. By 1938 escalating hostility toward the Jews mounted. The medical and legal trade unions blocked Jewish admission; numerous wealthy Jews were arrested; guards prevented non-Jewish customers from entering Jewish shops. These were but a few of the blatant indications of what was to come. Many Jews left the city, fearing the ominous signs. Others could not leave, while others simply thought it would blow over as similar conditions had in the past. But by September 8, 1939, feasible options for the Jews in Lodz had all but disappeared.
And This is Where Anna’s Story Begins …
Lodz, Poland – 1939
At eighteen years old, Anna Fischer had just completed her Jewish “gymnasium” and was living at home in Lodz with her family in a traditional, Chasidic Jewish lifestyle. Also living at home with her parents were her sister Sarka, about eight months younger and with whom she was very close; her four older brothers who were attending yeshiva; and her much younger sister, about age six. Her older sister was married and had a child, but they lived elsewhere.
Her home life was a happy one. It was a close, religious family. Meals were eaten in the family home together and the Shabbos meal was always fondly anticipated. When not working, her father, a mellow and pious man, spent long hours buried in his sacred books, often with Anna’s brothers. She was young, buoyant, and optimistic like most eighteen-year-old girls about to take on the world and engage in a new independent life.
Suddenly all her hopes were dashed and her dreams thwarted as the Nazis marched into Lodz on that fateful September day. From then on, her only hope became that of survival – for her family, her loved ones, and herself.
“I grew up in a very religious Orthodox Jewish home,” Anna said, “and after all, I mean, there was no question, otherwise what sense would life have if you didn’t believe in G-d? What is the whole thing all about?”
(To be continued)