What’s the difference between an optimist and a pessimist?” asks Robert Fisch. “The optimist says, ‘This is the best world we could possibly have.’ The pessimist says, ‘You’re right.’” ¶ To visit Fisch in his Minneapolis high rise is to partake of German beer and chocolates—his favorite treats—and jokes. He tells them constantly and no one laughs louder at them than him. But they almost all have an earnest message, which is that life should not be taken too seriously. ¶ “My life has been one accident after another,” he says. Born in Hungary, he was 18 when the Nazis sent him and his father to concentration camps.His father starved to death; he survived. When communists overran Hungary after the war, he escaped them, too, eventually becoming a pediatrician at the University of Minnesota Medical School. Then another, more happy, accident happened.
In the mid-1990s, after he spoke to schoolchildren in Pine City about the Holocaust, a teacher suggested he write a book about his experiences. He did: Light from The Yellow Star: A Lesson of Love from the Holocaust. Then he wrote several more, illustrating them himself with stylized paintings: boxcars loaded with people, the death camps. He hoped to humanize the horror. “Fifty-nine million dead,” he says. “What does that mean? We have to talk about individuals.”
This month, the Minnesota History Center opens The Value of One Life, an exhibit based on Fisch’s approach. Through photographs and interviews, it relates the stories of eight Minnesota survivors, from refugees to a wrongly imprisoned man to Fisch himself.
Incarceration, Fisch says, taught him an unusual lesson. “You’re not going to change the world,” he says. “The world changes without you. But you can change yourself.” He smiles. “My favorite cartoon is of a guy in the desert—utterly lost. A sign in the sand says, ‘You are here.’” Fisch laughs a long while, then reaches for another chocolate.
5 THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT ROBERT
1. His paintings were among the first works displayed in the Weisman Art Museum.
2. He co-manages a foundation helping medical students explore their artistic side.
3. He started Project Read to have volunteers read to children in medical waiting rooms.
4. He has written articles with economist Art Rolnick on early childhood education.
5. He’s a fan of the Dalai Lama. “He’s a joker, like a teenage boy. We can learn from that.”