2012-03-07 / Local News

Moorestown man keeps alive memory of cousin lost in Holocaust



Wife Ruth, daughter
Ellen, son Daniel, and
three grandchildren

Adath Emanu-El

Greening of the environment, ceramics

“People of the Book”
by Geraldine Brooks

“Anything and everything. Once you’ve
been hungry, you’re
not that particular.”

The memories cut wide and deep. Life was bucolic, safe and comfortable back in the village of Klecany near Prague during Robert Fischl’s boyhood. His father had a 350-acre dairy and sugar beet farm with a staff of 80, and while there were only 15 Jewish families in the village, they were all close—and felt safe.

Of course all of that changed drastically with the Nazis. “I still remember when the Germans marched into our town in 1939,” said Fischl, professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Drexel University.

What came next were the laws prohibiting Jews from former freedoms, including the ownership of property. There was the urgency to find sanctuary. First, that was in Prague with Fischl’s grandparents, close to other relatives, including his young cousin Sonja. “We were the same age, and just children who didn’t really know what was happening. We had fun together,” remembered Fischl recently.

How quickly that, too, changed as Fischl’s immediate family ultimately managed to get to Palestine, leaving behind those relatives, including Sonja, who didn’t get out.

In 1948, Fischl and his father immigrated to the United States and settled in New York. There, Fischl finished high school, went on to City College at night, and then to the University of Michigan, where he earned his Ph.D. He also married Ruth, and they began their family.

Through all the years and his highly acclaimed work at Drexel University, where Robert Fischl founded the Center for Electric Power Engineering, he thought of his cousin Sonja who had perished in the Holocaust. He was lucky—she wasn’t.

And then one day in 2000, during a visit to a museum in Prague where he had been many times, Fischl’s daughter Ellen looked down at some children’s drawings and discovered something that hit like a thunderbolt. Amid the art work of children held at Terezin Concentration Camp was one in bright colors by a young artist named Sonja Fischerova.

“I just couldn’t believe it, so of course we checked with the curator who verified it. And when I was shown a drawing of a living room, and recognized it as our grandparents’ apartment, it became real to me. There was something of Sonja left.”

Since that fateful day in 2000, the Fischl family has been dedicated to preserving Sonja’s legacy—she was 13 when she died at Auschwitz—-and helping the world to remember this terrible, dark time in human history. A foundation in Sonja’s name has been established, with donations going to develop educational materials to teach the lessons of the Holocaust (www.sonjaslegacy.com).

Fischl has donated a panel with copies of Sonja’s art—there was a total of 31 pieces— to the JCRC’s Goodwin Holocaust Museum and Education Center (GHMEC) at the Katz JCC. His daughter Ellen designed the format.

“We’ll never know how much richer our world would have been with them,” said Fischl. And that’s why we need to keep Sonja’s legacy alive.”

(Fischl will be speaking to a BBYO group at the Katz JCC on Monday, Mar. 12 at 7 p.m.; at Temple Beth Sholom on Tuesday, Mar. 20 at 1:15 p.m., and to a seniors group at Cong. M’kor Shalom on Monday, Apr. 2 at 11:45 a.m. (brown bag lunch). .

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