Robert Fisch, Minneapolis doctor, artist, author and Holocaust survivor, dies at 97

People were understandably outraged when a local weekly published photos in 2014 of men at a Minneapolis restaurant wearing Nazi uniforms and surrounded by Nazi flags. University of Minnesota faculty members condemned the incident as “lewd…a grave insult to the victims and survivors of war”.

The rebuttal came from an unexpected source: a Holocaust survivor.

“The individuals were attending a private party,” wrote Robert O. Fisch, a U professor of pediatrics, “and their freedom of expression is more important than anyone’s opinion of their activity.” Freedom, he added, “is a fundamental belief that I cannot give up.”

Fisch, a highly respected physician, artist, and writer who taught the Holocaust to children around the world, died June 12 at his Minneapolis home. He turned 97 that day.

“He was a wonderful, deeply caring human being,” longtime friend Erwin Kelen said.

Born in Budapest, Fisch was captured by the Nazis at the age of 19. American soldiers liberated him in 1945 from the Austrian death camp of Gunskirchen, too weak to walk. Back in Budapest, he obtained a medical degree. In 1956 he joined the Hungarian Revolution.

“He got in a truck, went to Vienna, took medicine for the injured and left,” Kelen said. “He was a real hero in more ways than one.”

Friends remember Fisch saying he treated people no matter what side they were on. He escaped from Hungary in 1957 and years later was knighted by the Hungarian government.

He came to U in 1958 as a medical intern and remained there until his retirement nearly 40 years later. Fisch was internationally recognized for his research on phenylketonuria (PKU) and child development, and authored or co-authored over 100 scientific papers.

Wayzata’s Elizabeth Perlich Sweeney met Fisch in 1989 when her daughter was born with PKU. They remained friends for life. She said he showed “a sweet confidence that instantly made me believe everything was going to be okay”.

Fisch studied art at several places, including the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and had a second career as an artist and author. His paintings have been exhibited nationwide and locally, including at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Weisman Art Museum.

“He applied himself to being an artist with the same energy and passion he had for medicine,” said former Weisman director Lyndel King.

Dr. Jon Hallberg, Creative Director at U’s Creative Medicine Centerwho focuses on the role of the arts in medicine, said Fisch showed him “it’s possible to forge an academic career that melds these seemingly disparate paths into a cohesive whole.”

Fisch’s five books include “Light from the Yellow Star: A Lesson of Love from the Holocaust”. He and Kelen started the nonprofit Yellow Star Foundation distributing educational materials on the Holocaust, including more than 50,000 copies of his book.

Fisch spoke at schools around the world and published some of the letters he received in “Dear Dr. Fisch: Letters from Children to a Holocaust Survivor.” He has also set up a program in which volunteers read and provide books to children in pediatric clinics.

In 2019 he was honored in Hungary for his contribution to Holocaust education.

Although the war initially left Fisch struggling with depression, every December for years he sent about 400 holiday letters expressing satisfaction with his life. “I am at peace with myself,” he wrote a year ago. “I accept that everything is transient, including me. I enjoy every moment, treat everything as an unexpected gift, and stay busy.”

Among the survivors, his wife, Karen Bachman, and daughter Alex Fisch of Abiquiu, NM Services will be in Budapest in September, where he asked to be buried alongside his father, who died in a concentration camp.

Lola R. McClure