StoryCorps Holocaust Story Prompts Family Reunion

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Michele Norris talks with Debbie Fisher and Maya Lee. In January 2005, Fisher participated in the StoryCorps oral-history project. She remembered her late father, a Holocaust survivor, and described the tattoo on her arm: a remembrance of another survivor of Auschwitz whose story moved her when she visited the Holocaust museum in Washington. That woman's daughter, Maya Lee, saw the story on the NPR Web site, and contacted her: they've been in close touch since June and Lee will be in New York to meet Fisher for the first time.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Here now is a story about a number. 2318. This number belonged to a survivor of Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp, and we'll get to that number after a little detour in our story.

Earlier this year, the StoryCorps project on NPR's MORNING EDITION presented a tale about a woman and her dying father. He had survived Auschwitz, too, but he was reluctant to talk about the experience.

Ms. DEBORAH FISHER: And I remember he looked at me and he had real anger in his face and in his eyes. He said you know, Debbie, from the time that you were a young girl you always asked your questions and I always told you, we got food, we got bread, we divided it up, we didn't suffer. It was fine.

NORRIS: That's Deborah Fisher talking about her father, Oscar Fisher. On his deathbed he finally told her the painful truth about life at Auschwitz. After that she yearned to learn more so she traveled to the Holocaust Museum here in Washington, D.C. and asked to read the testimony from other Auschwitz survivors.

One of those survivors was named Magda Blau, and here is where we get back to that number, 2318. The Nazis at Auschwitz tattooed Magda Blau's arm with that number, and after hearing her story, Deborah Fisher wanted to make sure the world never forgot about the concentration camps so she decided to do something bold. Deborah Fisher had the number 2318 tattooed on her own arm. She wants people to ask about that tattoo. As Holocaust survivors continue to die off, those questions, she believes, will help keep their stories alive.

And here's where her story intersects with that of another woman. Her name is Maya Lee. She's Magda Blau's daughter and this summer while at her mother's deathbed, Maya Lee decided she wanted to learn more about her mom.

Ms. MAYA LEE: I decided one evening when I was sitting in front of my computer answering all my emails to put my mother's name, Magda Blau, into Google. And suddenly in front of me there's like ten different sites with Magda Blau.

One of them caught my eye. It said Deborah Fisher, On A Survivor I Never Met: Magda Blau. And I opened it and suddenly I'm seeing a photograph of a young lady with a tattoo on her arm and I notice it's 2318, which is my mother's number. Well, my mother passed away about three days later and on the day of my mother's funeral my son was at our house and I said to him Michael, look at this please. Help me to find Deborah Fisher.

And the next morning I opened up my computer and lo and behold, there's a message. My name is Deborah Fisher. She's telling me why she did it and how she did. And I wrote to Deborah straightaway.

NORRIS: Deborah, this must have been - you'd been walking around with this number on your arm for some time, but this must have felt like a long arm reaching through history, tapping you on the shoulder.

Ms. FISHER: Exactly, Michele. I mean, when I think about it, I've been telling Magda Blau's story for over ten years. I didn't now if Magda was still alive and I wondered, would she be okay about this? Would her family be okay? And so when I got Maya's email, Maya describes that, you know, she was shivering in a sense, but I was really shaking because I opened it up and then I thought oh, my gosh. You know, basically it was something please write back or something.

And then I wrote and I thought well, here goes. Her response back to me is going to tell me either she was very upset and she wished I never did it, how could I, how dare I? Or she'll have to embrace it. And I was relieved when I realized, you know, from her email to me that she was pleased.

NORRIS: What did you two talk about in all these email exchanges? Because I understand this went on for quite some time.

Ms. FISHER: Months. It's still going on.

Ms. LEE: It's still going on, yes.

Ms. FISHER: Well, it was like getting to know you. It was sort of like a blind date in a way. It started out very personal and then it sort of backed down to not as personal. Next it became more personal and we developed this sort of online friendship and a trust based on shared information.

NORRIS: These two women met for the first time just minutes before this interview. Maya Lee, who lives in Australia, was visiting the U.S. and she took a side trip to New York City to meet Deborah Fisher. Maya was eager to see that tattoo.

Ms. FISHER: When we sat in the hallway in the lobby waiting to come into the booth and Maya said to me so, let me have a look at your number. And I was about to like pull up my sleeve and I thought no, no, no. Let's wait because this is something that I would like to share with people.

NORRIS: So Maya, you haven't even seen the tattoo yet?

Ms. LEE: I have seen it on the photo on the Net but I haven't seen it in real life, no. And I'm actually quite scared.

Ms. FISHER: I never knew where Magda had the number placed on her arm. My research told me that, you know, the numbers were placed all around the forearm. Some close to the wrists, some mid-forearm. I never knew and I just placed it where I thought it should be. So you can tell me if this is where your mother wore it or not. I'll show it to you now, Michele, if that's okay with you.

NORRIS: Oh, this is really up - Maya. If you're ready to see it, it's really up to you.

Ms. LEE: Okay.

Ms. FISHER: All right. Well, there it is.

Ms. LEE: Oh (unintelligible). It's much neater than my mother's.

Ms. FISHER: We're holding hands now, Michele, because it's very emotional.

Ms. LEE: It's that number. Jeepers, I'll tell you, I can't believe it. It's quite scary.

Ms. FISHER: It was scary when I did it. I mean, I walked into this tattoo shop and I said to the gentleman look, this is a strange tattoo. It won't be pretty and you might even think it's crazy, but this is what I'd like to do. And he looked at me. He was this big, gruff guy and he said well, you've come to the right place. And I said why do you say that? And he said because I know all about the Holocaust. He said, I collected all stuff Nazi. I love that stuff.

So I was really - I said, you know what? I don't know if I'm in the right place to do this. And he said oh, you are. He said because a few years ago I came to the conclusion that my collection was garbage and that it was evil and I had to get rid of it. And he said, and I just dumped it all. He said I just had to grow up and I realized that my desire to, like, emulate the Nazis was wrong and ridiculous and he said so, yes, I am the right person to put this tattoo. And he said and the funny thing is, I know the coloring and everything, he said, because that was my hobby.

And I sat down and I looked at him and I said okay, let's do it. That was somewhere in Norwalk, Connecticut. It just was random. You know, I don't have a background in tattoos and where to get them and I didn't even ask people, you know, where did you get yours? I just thought, when the spirit moves me I'll find a place and I'll just do it. And that's what took place. So it was a good choice, I have to say.

NORRIS: Excuse me.

Ms. LEE: We're all crying now.

Ms. FISHER: Well, we're shaking and crying here, Michele.

NORRIS: Now, as I listen to the two of you and imagine what's going on there in that studio, I'm thinking back to what you heard at the Holocaust Museum, what you read, Deborah, where Magda Blau said educate the people.

Ms. FISHER: Yes. I then have my opportunity to tell the story of a survivor who did the right things, who shared her food, who shared clothing, who organized women in the bunk to save each other's lives. And I thought this is a perfect way to get people to talk about something they don't want to talk about.

NORRIS: Maya Lee, Deborah Fisher, thank you so much for coming in and sharing your story and your experience. I'm going to say goodbye now because I have a feeling that you two have a whole lot to talk about right now.

Ms. FISHER: Oh, yes.

NORRIS: Okay.

Ms. FISHER: We do. Thank you so much, Michele.

NORRIS: Thank you.

Ms. LEE: Thank you.

NORRIS: Maya Lee and Deborah Fisher spoke to us from New York City. You can hear Deborah's contribution to the StoryCorps Project at NPR.org and you can also find out how you can take part.

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A Father's Memories of Auschwitz

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Listen: <b>Web Extra</b>: Fisher on Magda Blau, a Survivor She Never Met

Terrence Hicks and Debra Fisher. Courtesy of StoryCorps

Terrence Hicks and Debra Fisher in the StoryCorps booth at Grand Central Terminal. StoryCorps hide caption

itoggle caption StoryCorps
Concentation camp number of Magda Blau is tatooed on Debra Fisher's arm. Courtesy of StoryCorps

The concentation camp number of Magda Blau is tatooed on Debra Fisher's arm. StoryCorps hide caption

itoggle caption StoryCorps

Thursday is the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the most infamous Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz. To mark the anniversary, Debra Fisher shares a story from an ongoing oral history project, StoryCorps.

Fisher says her father, Auschwitz survivor Oscar Fisher, often portrayed his ordeal as something like, in her words, "Robin Hood and his merry men meet the Nazis."

But Debra Fisher eventually confronted her father, as she tells her friend, Terrence Hicks, in a StoryCorps interview. "I asked him everything that I ever wanted to ask. I asked him to tell me the real story. And he did."

Oscar Fisher was one of the 7,000 prisoners liberated from Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945, when the Soviet Army reached Auschwitz, in western Poland. By that time, more than 1 million people had died in the camp and its neighbor, Birkenau.

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