Photo Gallery | Holocaust survivor Ruth Fishman speaks at Herberg Middle School
PITTSFIELD — When Ruth Fishman tries to recall her childhood living in Nazi-run concentration camps, she says, "My memories are getting fainter and fainter each year."
It's what's motivates the West Hartford, Conn. resident to take notes on her memories and share them a few times a year at school and community talks and Holocaust remembrance events.
Last Wednesday, Fishman volunteered for a second year in a row to speak with eighth-grade students of Herberg Middle School, where those classes are reading Elie Wiesel's autobiographical concentration camp account, "Night." Herberg special education teacher, Christine Berger, and English teacher, Shannon Turner, invited the woman to speak at the school, after listening to her themselves during a workshop about teaching the Holocaust presented by an international education colloquium, Echoes and Reflections.
"We invited Mrs. Fishman here so you could hear her story of survival and hope," Berger told the students. "Hopefully it will bring to you a new level of meaning ... so we can begin to erase this kind of thing worldwide."
Fishman was born in 1935 in Cologne, Germany. Spooked by the spreading movements of Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime, the family moved to Holland, thinking the Netherlands would remain safe. But in May 1940, Holland, too, found itself under invasion.
"When I talk about the Holocaust, I see things through the eyes of a 5-year-old child," Ruth Fishman told the students. Her parents at the time were in their 30s, and she had a brother who was a few years older than she was.
During her talk, she detailed how her family, including a set of her grandparents, though at times would become separated, managed to communicate with craft and cunning to survive transitions through two concentration camps — The Netherlands' Westerbork, and later Theresienstadt, located in the Czech Republic.
There were three major keys to the family's survival: A forged Paraguayan passport, the fact that their father worked in the metal business, and a doll that Ruth's father would give to her.
The passport spared the family from the harshest death camps. The father's skill kept him alive as a laborer.
As for the doll, it's ceramic head was filled with the family's valuables, documents and money, and Fishman was told to never let it out of her sight. Today, she still brings the doll with her to talks.
Prompted by a student's question, Fishman said that current genocides and forced migration in Nigeria and Syria show that "we haven't learned" since the Holocaust, and "that's the very, very sad part of it."
Still, Fishman said she's been greatly encouraged by and travels with her daughter-in-law, Lisa Fishman, of Connecticut's Voices of Hope project, to talk and to be a living reminder.
Said Lisa to the students, "Twenty years from now there likely won't be any survivors left to hear from, so I hope you take what you have heard with you, as a legacy of my mother-in-law's survival, and talk about it, so we never forget."