Holocaust survivor emphasizes individual accountability over abstractions

Katie Marcus and Alberto De La Rosa | Staff Reporters
April 7, 2016

Holocaust refugee and former professor of nutritional biochemistry at Rutgers University Hans Fisher spoke Tuesday night about his experience escaping the Third Reich by boat in 1939.

Chabad on Campus brought Fisher to campus as part of a larger effort to share a variety of stories pertaining to those personally affected by the Holocaust.

Fisher left Germany on a ship named the MS St. Louis along with 1,128 other Jews as anti-Semitism was escalating. Upon arrival, the passengers were not allowed entrance to either Cuba or America, and were forced to return to Europe on the cusp of World War II. Fisher’s family went to a small town in France called Laval.

Now an American citizen, Fisher doesn’t foster resentment towards the America that denied him and his peers help when they desperately needed it.

“When you mention ‘this country,’ that’s an abstract term. It wasn’t the country; it was people. If you ask me, do I have a grudge against those people? I would have to say yes. I think it was not very nice,” Fisher said.

“But it wasn’t the U.S. To talk about a country, that is an abstraction, really,” he said. “The country didn’t do anything to me. I think it was people like [United States President Franklin] Roosevelt or Mackenzie King, the Prime Minister of Canada who told his counsel in Europe to not let any Jews in because they would pollute Canadian blood.”

Instead, he focuses on what he considers to be the inevitable preordained nature of life. He uses the Yiddish word, “Bashert,” meaning “destiny,” to explain it.

“So much depended on, shall we call it luck or circumstance or chance?” Fisher said. “What’s gonna be, it’s gonna be. We may think we can influence it, but in the final analysis, it may be that all our endeavors are preordained.”

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, upon returning to Europe, passengers of the St. Louis dispersed. Great Britain took in 288 passengers, while the Netherlands took 181, Belgium 214 and 224—including Fisher—found temporary refuge in France.

Their respective fates, Fisher said, were very different. While almost all of the passengers who debarked in Great Britain survived the war in its entirety, many others were sent to concentration camps like Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.

Because of this, Fisher says, he and others that were in similar circumstances have trouble labeling their experience.

“We are never sure whether we should consider ourselves survivors. In many ways, we were really escapees because we didn’t, fortunately, end in a concentration camp so we were, in that respect, lucky. We weren’t quite as bad as those who were caught by the Nazis and put in camps and the ghettos or immediately murdered,” Fisher said.

Jeremy Fisher is Fisher’s grandson, and currently a sophomore at Washington University. He serves as the president of the Chabad Student Association on campus and is very familiar with the story his grandfather tells of his Holocaust experience.

He thinks that every survivor’s story continues to add something immensely different and valuable to the picture.

“In each case it’s a different person experiencing it; it’s a different life. So even two survivors of the same concentration camp, people think that because the people in the camps were reduced to nothing that they must have similar stories and I don’t think that’s true,” Jeremy Fisher said.

“Because at this point, where those people have come now, it’s sort of retroactively impacted the way that they see what’s happened to them before.”

One of the most important messages of his grandfather’s story, Jeremy said, is his refusal to blame an entire nation for the actions of individuals.

“Whenever he tells the story, he doesn’t focus on America or Germany or Nazis or whatever. He focuses on individuals. So there were people, there was politics and there were people who said ‘you can’t come’, but ‘America’ didn’t. In the same way, there were people who let him come and gave him opportunities to go to college,” he added.