In a west Mobile apartment, filled with a gleaming grand piano, white birthday roses, and pictures of musicians, there is a woman named Alma Fisher -- petite, gracious, 91 years of age -- who survived hell. Keen of mind, soft of voice, only her eyesight dimmed, she looks back, with clarity, on terrors of the past.|
Adolf Hitler tried to kill Alma -- his Nazis and their accomplices shot, gassed, tortured and starved to death 6 million Jews, among them Alma's mother and grandmother, and her late husband's mother, sister, brother and two sisters-in-law.
The place that Alma endured from 1942 to 1945 -- Auschwitz -- conjures images of barbed wire, attack dogs, gas chambers, hollow-eyed men and women. "Auschwitz," says the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, "was the largest graveyard in human history."
On Alma's forearm there is a scar where the tattoo of her concentration camp serial number used to be. She had it removed, she says, at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York after coming to America. "Everybody around me stood there crying. They had never seen anything like it."
Alma's story of surviving Auschwitz -- and of knowing Hitler's bride, Eva Braun -- is one she'd decided never to tell.
After all, the life she made in America was a good one: marriage to a wonderful man, Tony Fisher, whom she'd met in New York; their happy years in Mobile, where they'd moved for his career in lumber export; her successes as a performer with the Mobile Symphony Orchestra and as a piano teacher at Murphy High, Spring Hill College and the University of South Alabama.
"It was easy to get the home feeling here," she says. "We want to live, and we want to forget."
Why has she decided now, to remember? Perhaps, she says, it was a television documentary she saw on Auschwitz that stirred her. Or maybe it's the anger she feels that some fringe provocateurs claim the Holocaust never happened at all.
Peter Black, a senior historian of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, says that the number of Nazi death-camp victims staggers comprehension: half of Europe's 12 millions Jews, half a million Gypsies, 100,000 mentally and physically disabled people, 2.5 million non-Jewish Poles, 3 million Soviet prisoners of war. Tens upon tens of thousands more.
A lone, human voice like Alma Fisher's, Black says, shocks us into recognition when the numbers make us numb.
Alma's voice, gentle yet urgent, is as sweet as any grandmother's, yet unbreakable as steel. Like the tattoo long gone but forever marking her - her experiences left an indelible scar.
. . .
At the outset of the First World War in 1914, Alma - born Alma Weiss - was in first grade in Munich, Germany. Her father, Moritz, was a businessman; her mother, Vilma, a homemaker. The Weisses were cultured, comfortably off, patriotically German. Moritz served the Kaiser in Vienna during the war.
"We had a king we loved," Alma says. "A princess who walked among us on the streets."
Germany's 500,000 Jews, before the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, generally flourished in the mainstream. In cosmopolitan Munich, the Weisses mingled with Germans of all walks.
"Eva Braun's father was my first-grade teacher," she says. "The Brauns lived around the comer from us, and Eva's mother always said, 'If you need anything, come.'"
"Eva's father was a nice man, her mother was nice, too. Before she fell in bad hands, Eva was" - Alma shrugs - "just a girl. They lost their daughter, too, the Brauns. I don't know how proud they were of her."
Alma learned English, French and Italian, and played piano, loving Chopin, Mozart and Liszt.
She wished to attend Munich's Academy of Music, but first secured a business degree at the insistence of her pragmatic father. Going on to the academy, she excelled and was invited to teach. She aspired to be a concert artist.
Like others in her circle of friends, she had not lost sight of Eva Braun.
While working in a Munich photo shop in 1929 at age 17, plump, blonde Eva had been introduced, as she'd later recount, to "a man with a funny mustache," who'd offered her "a lift in his Mercedes." The suitor was the 40-year-old leader of Germany's National Socialist Party, and she soon was meeting him in his Munich apartment. Eva Braun had become the mistress of Adolf Hitler.
"Everybody knew about her," Alma says. "Where Hitler was, Eva was."
Hitler had been a fringe politician in the mid-1920s, when he first lunged for power, landed in prison and began to dictate "Mein Kampf." His book, like his speeches, made Jews the scapegoats for Germany's World War I defeat and its subsequent ills.
As Germany's hard times deepened with the world's depression, Hitler, free by now, had the easy explanations: Why, it was Jewish wealth, Jewish danger, a Jewish conspiracy.
By 1933, Hitler was no longer fringe - he became Germany's chancellor. "His unbearable hatred" of the Jews, as Alma describes it, and his obsession with "Aryan" blood unleashed the nation's basest, and cruelest, instincts.
Books by Jewish writers were burned, cemeteries desecrated, shop windows smashed. Jewish civil servants were fired and Jewish doctors, professors, and lawyers stripped of their credentials. Scientists and physicists who were Jewish - Albert Einstein, among them - were drummed into exile. The Munich synagogue was torched. Nazi strikes against Jews, under Hitler's martial law, resulted in arrests, beatings and murders.
Alma Fisher glimpsed Hitler just once, in the early '30s. A doctor friend visiting Munich invited her to a tea house, the Carlton.
"I didn't know it at the time," she said, "but it was the place where Hitler was seen. He had his own private room there. Suddenly, there was this big excitement and Hitler went through. That doctor wanted to see Hitler, and that's why he took me there."
At the Academy of Music, Alma wished only to teach piano, and study in a master class for honors graduates. The 1930s wore on.
"Then, one day, my teacher came and said 1 had to write a letter - which was very strange from a teacher, but his character just wasn't big enough for the times - a letter to ask for my resignation on account of health problems. I would not have done it if my teacher, who I adored, and admired, would not have told me."
She adds dryly: "He turned out to be a pretty good Nazi."
. . .
Alma's world rapidly changed. Thousands of German Jews managed to emigrate, but a great many more did not. Alma put money down to secure her own passage, but the world's doors were open only to so many. Her sister had married an Italian in 1932 and moved to Italy. Her father had passed away in 1936. Her mother went to live in Yugoslavia with Alma's great-uncle and grandmother, pianning to join Alma in America or France if Alma could reach there.
Alma was in Munich on Sept. 1, 1939, when Hitler's army invaded Poland. That same night, the mother and brother of a man she was seeing romantically - he was not Jewish; indeed, he was in the German air force - came to take her to their rural estate.
She stayed with them for several months - the family was soon harboring other Jews - until she sensed problems. "Somehow the people around must have found out they were hiding people," she says.
She remembers, for example, that her hosts, whose livelihood was bound up in farm animals, suddenly had their feed supplies cut off by local authorities. She worried what pressures might come next.
"I knew I wasn't going to stay there and cause trouble."
She moved back to a Munich boarding house.
Alma and the young airman had become engaged, but Hitler's 1935 Nuremberg Laws on German citizenship deemed it unlawful for Jews and non-Jews to wed. So they rendezvoused in secret, depending on friends to provide cover for them.
But the war was pulling them apart.
All around Alma, Jews were being taken from their homes and dragged away. Knowing her tum was coming, she still had one hope - the promise made to her as a child by the mother of Eva Braun.
"When it looked dangerous, that we would all be shipped from Munich, I went to her and asked her if there was anything she could do for me.
The answer from Eva's mother came back soon enough: "Unfortunately, there's absolutely nothing she can do for anybody Jewish."
. . .
As Alma Fisher tells her story she pauses to make iced tea for her guest and to offer cookies on decorative china. A Liszt sonata performed by her friend John Browning plays in the background. Though she has no children, she is anyone's ideal grandmother - delicate, silverhaired, attentive. Wise.
She takes out a photo album and shows a beloved dog she recently lost: Tippy, a bright-eyed Westie terrier. On her 90th birthday last year, friends gave her 90 white roses. The friends showered her with roses again on her recent 91st.
Macular degeneration makes it difficult for Alma to see, but she knows her apartment, and memorabilia, by heart. She pulls out a postcard from decades ago and touches the script, returning to the past.
"I had a card from my mother who was about to be shipped out of that city in Yugoslavia. 'And what will I do?' she writes. 'I won't even have money for stamps to write to you.' "
She hesitates. "Terrible. The Germans had occupied Yugoslavia in the meantime. Much later 1 heard out she was shipped away, together with my old grandmother."
She whispers their fate: "Gassed."
She puts the postcard away, silent.
. . .
The Nazis seized Alma and shipped her to a compound that had been a cloister. She became "forced labor," directed by SS guards to toil in a telephone factory. She kept her head down and did what she was told.
"I worked well," she said. "I showed them I could do it."
One day "a transport" -- a train that loaded up people like cattle -- was readied to carry Jews to Eastern Europe, territory that had fallen under Hitler's domination. The first transport, Alma recalls, was to Riga, a town in Latvia where Jews had been shoved into a ghetto of tens of thousands, marched into the forest and slaughtered.
"One nice day I missed the first transport. To Riga," she says grimly. "Nobody returned from there. Then there came another transport - I had not even heard the word - to Auschwitz."
It was in 1942 when that second transport -- Alma aboard -- began to make its way to the east, deep into Poland. Crammed into a boxcar, Alma, like the others, was at the mercy of the captors. "They had the guns. We hated the Nazis, but we couldn't do anything. They had the power."
Arriving at the camp, they were ordered out of the train for the "selection" - a delicate word for the cruel, cold decisions made by Nazi SS guards.
"To the left. To the right. To the left. To the right." Alma's voice faintly trembles as she repeats the commands.
Families were split apart, able-bodied workers put into one row, old people and children in another: "We had a whole group of children in our transport. They were all killed. Every child."
Alma was directed "to the left," through the iron gates.
She remembers there were 300 others in her transport -- only 50 of them, she was aware of, entered with her. A while later, still innocent of the magnitude of horrors, she asked where the others had gone.
Someone pointed to the chimneys.
Of the 300 in her transport, Alma was one of only three who would survive.
"When we arrived in Auschwitz, they took everything away, clothes, shoes. We were naked. They shave your hair, put a tattoo on your arm. You don't feel anything because you're so numb. Completely paralyzed. You don't realize it can be true."
They were given cast-off pants, shirts and dresses: "Clothes that didn't fit and shoes that ruined your feet - that had belonged to the dead."
For months, "sleeping on wooden planks, in stalls," she'd rise, often in bitter cold, and tramp out past a German oom pah band playing patriotic songs of Hitler's Third Reich. Her labor was mindless -- "cutting grass, working in fields. I don't remember what I was thinking.
"The food? Horrible! Potato peel boiled In water."
All the while, she says, "We saw the chimneys with smoke coming out, the people who were gassed and then burned."
Around the camp was electrified wire. "Many people went to the wire to kill themselves -- if you put your hands on the wire you were electrocuted. They just couldn't take it."
. . .
Not knowing the fate of her mother, or her fiance, Alma nursed the hope she would be reunited with both if she could only endure. Little did she know that, even after months of hard labor, the war had three years to go.
At Auschwitz, according to the "Encyclopedia of the Holocaust," a million and a half Jews -- men, women, and children -- would be put to death. Odds were remote that anyone would survive for very long at the camp.
By freakish luck, Alma was placed in a camp job that could save her. Her lifeline was the business degree from Munich, the one her father had insisted upon.
An SS guard, she believes, had seen her paperwork and knew that she could work with records and files. She lived like the other prisoners, only she reported every day to the Auschwitz office.
She joined a staff of other women prisoners whose job it was to chronicle the gruesome facts of the Auschwitz killing machine.
Under penalty of death, Alma was not allowed to divulge anything of what she saw.
When Alma realized that SS guards, in the office, did not long endure the presence of foul-smelling prisoners -- "they were afraid they'd catch a sickness" -- she contrived a way to wash up, regularly slipping into a shower-closet near her quarters. It became part of her strategy of survival.
The depth of misery in the camp was so great that the tiniest gesture of kindness was seen, by Alma, as "a miracle" -- a German soldier, who'd been transferred to the Auschwitz office after suffering a war wound, handed Alma a gift from his wife one day. "It was," she remembers as though speaking of a treasure, "a piece of apple."
Some days later, she took a risk. She asked the soldier to send a message to the family of her fiance, telling of her whereabouts. Remarkably, he did, bringing word back of their acknowledgment.
By January 1945, Russia was pushing deeper into Poland, beating back Hitler's forces. As the red army neared Auschwitz, the Nazis began to abandon the camp, taking with them the 58,000 victims who were still alive.
Alma Fisher was suddenly outside, on the open roads of Poland. The SS guards were directing her and the others -- frail, hungry, exhausted, and beaten down -- to walk, without stopping, hundreds of miles back to Germany.
"They put us," she says, "on the death march."
. . .
"For seven days and seven nights we were running from the Russians. Anyone who could not walk anymore, or was sitting down, was shot."
She tells of the death march in a blur. From other camps across the crumbling German empire, Jewish survivors were being herded west. Thousands, who lagged, were killed and left in roadside ditches.
Alma thought she was going to become one of the fallen.
"I was close," she says, "to giving up." Then another prisoner, a stranger beside her -- "somebody I never knew before, and never saw afterward" -- picked her up and carried her.
Those who survived the march arrived at another camp, this one deep inside Germany, just north of Berlin -- Ravensbrueck. That camp had held women, and served as a training ground for women in Hitler's SS guard.
At Ravensbrueck, in April, Alma heard that the American president, Franklin Roosevelt, had died.
"We thought that was the end of the world," she says. "All we had hoped for was that Roosevelt would save us, then he was dead."
Within days, Alma was set on a death march again; Ravensbrueck was being evacuated. On this march, chaos ensued. The SS guards, fearing their own capture now, abandoned the prisoners, threw away their uniforms and fled.
Alma and the others began to wander on their own.
"We went into houses that were left alone, opened the doors, went in, slept, and tried to feed ourselves. We dug potatoes out of the earth and ate those raw. The Russians came and left, fortunately, after a while.
"Then the Americans came."
With the Allied forces victorious, Alma made her way back to Munich. But there was nobody for her there anymore. She soon learned the fate of her mother.
She went to see her fiance's family in the countryside. Toward the end of the war, they said, he had been killed in action.
. . .
The story of her life that Alma Fisher recounts is a tragic one up until 1945. She was, by then, only 38 years old.
Looking back, she grieves for the loss of loved ones, and for the nameless millions, too. She puzzles, like anyone else, about what drove, in the deepest sense, the madman.
"There was this tremendous hate, this envy, that's what must have happened to Hitler. This unbearable hate. How anybody could choose a place and kill 6 million people. Not anybody in his right sense! And so many thousands of thousands followed him."
She has been back to visit friends in Munich, "but not to live there, never. If that's possible in a country as beautiful as Munich was, and Germany was, no, I would not go back."
But she remembers those who showed kindness: the youthful fiance who risked himself to see her, the man in the death camp who handed her a piece of apple, the stranger, on the death march, who lifted her onto his back.
Alma was given a government job in Munich right after the war. Soon, as a "displaced person" under the Truman Act -- which brought Holocaust survivors to America -- she boarded a ship and crossed the Atlantic.
In New York, she was invited for coffee by friends from Munich on the same evening as a Yugoslavian named Tony Fisher, also scarred by the Holocaust. He was working in the lumber business in North Carolina.
Tony kept calling on her, and soon asked her to marry him. They moved south, too Mobile, where he had connections. One day, when she was practicing piano in her new home, a stranger passed by, heard her and told educators at Barton Academy about her.
On May 1, 1951, in a ceremony conducted by federal judge Dan H. Thomas, Alma took the oath of U.S. citizenship along with 40 others in Mobile. Thomas talked to them about American ideals, according to an account in the Mobile newspaper: "The heart and soul of those ideals is the profound conviction that the right of the individual to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness rises above the arbitrary dimensions of the state."
The judge's words proclaimed the exact opposite of the demands of Nazi Germany.
"We were happy," Alma says of her life with Tony, who passed away in 1991, at age 90. In Mobile, they were active in social and civic affairs. Tony was president of the local theater company, the Joe Jefferson Players; Alma was Mrs. Frank in the play "The Diary of Anne Frank."
"Life made it up to me," she whispers, exhausted from her tale, yet unburdened of it now. "God made it up to me."
The girl who lived around the corner from Alma in childhood -- and once coldly denied her help -- of course found a husband, too. On April 29, 1945, in a wedding ceremony in the fuehrer's bunker beneath Berlin, Eva Braun finally became Eva Hitler.
One day later, as the world would cheer, the bride put poison into her mouth, and the groom a bullet into his head.
Alien passenger manifest, June 1946
Manifest of alien passengers, October 1940
Immigration card, Buffalo, November 1943
Immigration card, November 1943
Petition for naturalization: Alma
Petition for naturalization: Anthony
Petition for naturalization: Anthony
Mobile Concerto Soloists
Mobile Concerto Soloists