Sisters and Brookline residents Mona Weiner and Sheila White are living examples of the power of the human spirit. Their parents, Chaim and Sara (Szames) Fisgeyer, were both witnesses of the Holocaust; overcoming incredible odds and immense personal suffering and heartache. Chaim’s story is included in the upcoming work-in-progress documentary by R. Harvey Bravman, Soul Witness, The Brookline Holocaust Witness Project, which will be shown in a special screening on January 26, 2017, at 7 pm at the Coolidge Corner Theater. The documentary film contains footage that was taken from 1990 to 1996 from approximately 80 hours of video interviews of Brookline residents who witnessed the Holocaust.
I had the privilege of sitting down with Mona Weiner to learn more about her family story and hear about what it was like to be raised by two witnesses of the Holocaust.
Chaim and Sara Fisgeyer grew up in rural villages in Poland in close-knit Jewish neighborhoods and communities. One might even describe their upbringings as idyllic until Hitler came to power and the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939.
Chaim was married with five children when World War II broke out. He lost his first wife and all five children in the Holocaust. He managed to survive by hiding for five years from not only the German soldiers but their Ukrainian allies, who were ordered to kill Jews. Several Polish families helped to protect him during the war, some of whom had family members who turned in Jews. During the warmer months, he would take refuge and hide in ditches in the woods.
“My father told us a story once of how he was hiding in a barn with a number of other Jews and a number of cattle,” recalled Weiner. “Knowing that there were Jews hiding in there, the Germans surrounded the barn, but they opened the large barn door to let the cattle escape before destroying it and everyone inside. My father was saved because he decided to run out of the barn along with the cattle. He figured the Germans would most likely not shoot at him for fear of killing the cattle. The lives of livestock were considered more valuable than Jews.”
Once the war was over, Chaim Fisgeyer, like millions of other Jews, found a temporary home at a displaced persons camp in Lintz, Austria. There, he reconnected with his future wife Sara, who he had known from growing up in Poland. Mrs. Fisgeyer was alone at the camp, having lost both her husband and a young child during the Holocaust.
“My parents met at a displaced persons camp and had a Jewish wedding,” Weiner recalled. “I was born in Austria in the camp, and we lived there as a family before coming to the United States. We were very fortunate that my father had two elderly aunts living in the U.S.A. and they sponsored us.” After briefly staying in New York City, the family moved to Brookline where Fisgeyers remained for the rest of their lives.
Upon coming to Brookline, Mr. Fisgeyer found work as a butcher. He was known for his strong work ethic – never being able to sit still, but always doing and fixing things both at work and at home. He also attended Temple every morning and every evening. His faith continued to play a critical role in his everyday life in Brookline.
“My mother rarely spoke about the Holocaust,” Weiner said. “It was as if she just wanted to move on from the horror and start anew. My father did speak to us more about his experience and was open to being interviewed in the 1990’s along with so many other survivors from Brookline.”
Mona Weiner and Sheila White played instrumental roles in ensuring that their father’s story was able to be included in the film project. Chaim Fisgeyer’s interview had been conducted completely in Yiddish. Weiner and White were able to translate and log their father’s video testimony so that Bravman, the creator of the film, could include excerpts from his testimony with subtitles. For their work, the two sisters are listed in the credits of the movie.
“I watched all the footage many times to write the script and prepare for the many edit sessions it took to complete this version of the documentary,” said Bravman, explaining the sisters’ role. “But Chaim’s interview was in Yiddish, and my work seemed incomplete without the ability to hear his story. When we found Mona and Sheila, they told us Yiddish was their first language. The look on Mona and Sheila’s faces as they sat next to each other, watching their father’s 26-year-old interview for the first time, that’s something I’ll never forget”.
Family members of those in the documentary proved to be invaluable assets in the making of the final product. Many of them did not even know that their relatives had ever been interviewed about their Holocaust experiences and/or had never seen the video footage because for years the tapes were literally hidden in a big, metal closet.
Bravman and his wife, Karen, worked relentlessly to locate the relatives of those interviewed in the tapes to raise their awareness for the stories and project itself. Many of the phone numbers and addresses of the interviewees were 20 years out of date and, sadly, many had passed away. Using the Internet and some good investigative skills, they were able to find family members and bring them into the fold of the project.
“Harvey and Karen contacted us about the project,” Weiner said. “We knew these tapes were out there but had never had any luck identifying them. When Harvey showed Sheila and I our father describing his experience in Yiddish, it was incredibly emotional for us. The Holocaust shaped our lives in tangible ways. We always felt we were different from other children because of what our parents lived through.”
Given the gravity of personal loss that the vast majority of Holocaust witnesses endured, it is not surprising that their experiences impacted their parenting post-war and influenced how their children often perceived them and interacted with them. Weiner, who has attended support groups for families of Holocaust survivors through Jewish Family Services in Newton, grew up in a very loving, but incredibly sheltered home.
“My mother did not let me ride a bike or take part in sleepovers,” Weiner said. “She was so fearful that something bad might happen to me. I always tried to be a good child because I knew how much my parents had been through. I did not want to add to the burden they still carried with them every day.”
Weiner is excited that her father’s story and the stories of so many other local Brookline residents are going to live now on through the film, Soul Witness, The Brookline Holocaust Witness Project. She reflects on the fact that many of those interviewed in the movie are now deceased and it is up to their children and grandchildren to carry out their legacies within their families and beyond. She understands how critical it is for younger generations, as her children and grandchildren, to know about their family history and these amazing stories of survival.
“Personally, I have always considered every birth stemming from my immediate family a miracle in a way,” Weiner said. “Every Jewish child born to a Holocaust survivor is proof of the power of the will to survive. And every birth shows that, ultimately, evil did not win out. Hitler did not get his way.”
Tickets for Soul Witness, The Brookline Holocaust Witness Project can be purchased on Coolidge’s website.