By Stacey Dresner
WEST HARTFORD – When K. Heidi Fishman was growing up in West Hartford her mother Ruth did not hide the fact that she was a Holocaust survivor from her kids.
“I feel like I always knew her story. I don’t remember the first time I heard it…I knew she had been through the war. She told me, however she told me. Little things would come up and if I asked a question, she would answer it. And then it was: ‘Next topic, what are we going to have for dinner?’ She didn’t dwell on it,” Fishman recalls. “I did not hear horrible Holocaust stories as a child. It just wasn’t done.”
If her family told any stories, she says, it was the “funny stories” like the one about her grandfather hiding stolen vegetables in his pants, nearly getting caught and having diarrhea. After which her grandmother took the soiled vegetables, washed them and served them to the starving family, because wasting any food in that situation would be unconscionable.
“So it was funny, but not funny. When you are told this as a 10- or a 12-year-old, it is pretty funny,” Fishman said. “When you hear it as an adult, it is tragic.”
In the early 1990s when Fishman’s mother began speaking at schools about her experiences as a child inmate at the Theresienstadt concenteration camp, Fishman heard her mother’s full story.
Five years ago when Ruth visited Fishman’s daughter’s 7th grade class to speak, her story resonated with Fishman differently than before.
“It hit me as a mother watching my child listen to it. I was hearing it as a parent. [I thought] How would the parent take care of the child in that situation? I was seeing it through my grandmother’s eyes. So I was watching my daughter and her friends and how they listened to my mom and they were just spellbound… I said, ‘Ok, this has got to be written down.’”
Fishman has written it down and her book, Tutti’s Promise, about her family’s experiences during the Holocaust, will be launched on Monday, April 3 at the Mandell JCC as part of its JCC Book Festival.
Co-sponsoring the event is CT Voices of Hope, the Holocaust education organization of which Fishman’s brother, Peter Fishman is president.
“We both just sort of got interested in [the Holocaust] at the same time and did it in different ways. His interest was to start with fundraising and to help teach other people and to teach children about the Holocaust,” she says. “My way was writing a book about it.”
Fishman’s mother was born Ruth Lichtenstern in 1935 in Germany. Her nickname was Tutti. In 1936, Tutti and her parents, Heinz and Margret, left Germany for Amsterdam.
“They saw the writing on the wall,” Fishman explained. “And the company my father worked for moved the main office from Cologne to Amsterdam. It was a Jewish company and my grandfather went with the move.”
The Lichtensterns’ life in Amsterdam was good for a couple of years – Tutti’s younger brother Robbie was born there in 1938. Then in 1940, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands.
Things were okay for the Lichtensterns for a time.
“It started out normal even though the Germans were there. They way the Nazis invaded the Netherlands was that they made their changes really slow,” Fishman said. “It wasn’t like a Kristallnacht where they just came in and started knocking down all of the synagogues and arresting people. It was slow, insidious changes. Little things. ‘Register your bike, register your car. Now you can’t have your car. Now you can’t have your bike.’ It was little things like that and it slowly crept up on them.”
Fishman’s grandfather worked as a metals commodities trader.
“The Nazis wanted him to stay in his job. Until October 1943, it was useful for him to be working,” Fishman said. “At the same time, he didn’t want to be helping [the Germans].”
The family was sent twice to Westerbork, a transit camp in the Netherlands, the first time in October 1943.
That November they were released with two other families that were also involved in the metals trade. When doing research for the book, Heidi found documents between the office of Adolf Eichmann – the architect of the Final Solution and the department of Armament and Munitions, which needed metal for the war effort.
“These two top very important departments of the Nazis’ machine are arguing what to do with seven – what they called – ‘metal Jews.’ And my grandfather was one of them. So the munitions people are saying let them go we need them so they were let go in November. But then by February, Eichmann’s office gets the upper hand and says, ‘No, they are going back in, we are arresting them. We have gotten rid of all of the Jews in the Netherlands, we want them too.’”
Despite the scrap metal work they were doing – and sabotaging whenever they got the chance – Heinz, Margret, Tutti and Robbie were sent to Theresienstadt in September of 1944. But her father was still valuable due to his connections with the metals industry.
“In Theresienstadt they were no longer living as a family unit. It was my grandmother with the two children and then the men were in a separate barracks. Both sets of my mother’s grandparents were in Theresienstadt as well.”
Tutti’s Promise shares the stories of Tutti’s time in both Westerbork and Theresienstadt. She has memories of regular everyday things – playing with other children, a special doll, childhood crushes, and less pleasant memories, like the hunger.
“My mom’s memories are really child memories. She saw it through a child’s eyes. Her mother…my grandmother is my hero in this. She protected the kids so much,” Fishman said.
After the war, Tutti, now known as Ruth to many in the community, settled in West Hartford – her husband Herbert’s hometown – to raise Heidi and her brothers, Peter and Toni.
Heidi, who attended Renbrook School and Loomis Chaffee, became a psychologist in private practice before she decided to become an author.
Tutti was her main source when writing the book.
“The number of emails back and forth and phone calls back and forth…just looking for details,” said Fishman, who now lives in Vermont with her family. “There were lots of documents, lots of archival stuff and I met with people who knew more stuff, like in the Netherlands there is a digital monument to the Jews called ‘Joods Monument.nl,’ and it lists the 104,000 Jews that were murdered during the war, what happened to them…pictures, last residence, family connections, it’s amazing. And I met different people who knew different bits of the story. I tracked down the family members of the seven ‘metal Jews’ to try to find out what they knew about their grandfather or uncle.”
While searching the Dutch Holocaust website, Fishman even found a history professor working on his own book, who was able to fill her and her family in on how her own Uncle Bobby had tried to escape to London with a friend, but was captured and sent to Auschwitz.
In the book, Tutti makes two big promises, which will not be given away here. Fishman wants middle-schoolers to read about the promises on their own.
“I want middle school social studies teachers to pick it up and use it. Because I think it really teaches the Holocaust. You start from a family where everything was fine and then an invasion and how their life changes, and you get all these steps along the way,” Fishman said.
On the website, she has included discussion questions for each chapter “so teachers can have that right there and ready to go…I want it all to be there. If they want to teach the Holocaust, it is all there.”
But she adds that the book is also appropriate for adults.
“I intended it for middle school when I was writing it. That was my audience. And as friends started to read drafts, they said, ‘What do you mean middle school – I love this!’ Every adult I know who has read it says it is not a kid’s book. Kids can definitely understand it, but this is an absolutely great read for adults too. It’s an everybody book.”
Fishman won the 2015 Joseph Zola Memorial Holocaust Educator Award from the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford for Tutti’s Promise’s book proposal.
Avinoam Patt, professor of Modern Jewish History at the Greenberg Center and director of its Museum of Jewish Civilization, reviewed the book, calling it “a compelling story for all readers about one family’s remarkable tale of survival during the Holocaust. K. Heidi Fishman does a masterful job of weaving together Holocaust history with the account of Tutti and her family… The book fills an important gap in the available literature on the subject…”
Fishman said that message of Tutti’s Promise is one of acceptance.
“The message is that people have to stop being prejudiced against each other because of some arbitrary label, color, religion, whether you can walk, or you have trouble breathing. None of that matters. We are all human beings. We have to get along. And when we start labeling other people as ‘them’ we have a problem. I want people to stop seeing the ‘thems’ – because this is what it leads to.”