I don’t remember the first time I met Moshe Fiszman.
It was undoubtedly during one of my early visits to the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Elsternwick, where Moshe would work as a volunteer throughout his later life, energetically pursuing the never-ending mission to combat persecution and hatred in all its forms. We would cross paths so many times over the years, whether among the sombre exhibits of the museum or up the road at Maxy’s restaurant, that my memory of Moshe sees him more as a consistent presence than the subject of a chance meeting or two. However, there is one moment that has helped sparked this blog.
Moshe was a frequent member of the audience at the monthly JHC film screenings and public conversations that I co-convened with one of his daughters, Lena. On multiple occasions, Moshe was only too happy to offer some reflections from the lectern when the film’s narrative intersected with his own wartime experiences. In fact, Moshe was a speaker at the very first screening we hosted way back in 2011.
Lena and I had scheduled a film called Facing Arthur for 21 March, a Monday evening. This HBO documentary from 2002 depicts the coming together of a reclusive 100 year-old Holocaust survivor and the 20 year-old German exchange student sent by a Jewish aid agency to spend time with and help him. With the young man’s father having served in the German army during World War II, ‘reconciliation’ is clearly set up as the pivotal theme to be explored. The relationship moves from one of tension and suspicion to one of trust and warmth.
Facing Arthur wasn’t a brilliant film, but it doesn’t take a masterpiece to provoke a productive discussion and that is what happened on this evening. We’d lined up a panel of five speakers, including Moshe and, sitting next to him, a young man called Dominic. An Austrian intern newly arrived at the Centre, Dominic was there to contribute to the JHC’s activities as part of his national service. He was of a similar age to the young exchange student depicted in the film.
This is the moment I remember: after Dominic gave a brief reflection on the film’s story of reconciliation and ‘coming to terms with the past’, as well as his pleasure at being able to visit and contribute to the work of the Holocaust Centre, Moshe was the next to speak. Moshe stood up, not as tall as his fellow survivor Willie Lermer had been, but still a powerful physical presence that was always backed up by his booming voice. I don’t remember everything Moshe said that night, but I do remember how he started:
There is no forgiveness!!
This remark, and the description of Nazi atrocities and Jewish suffering that followed, was not aimed at anyone in particular – certainly not at the young intern who had just spoken. At the same time, there was clearly some kind of divide there – a generational divide, yes, but also a divide in experience and understanding. I’m sure that Dominic, who was still finding his feet in a new national and local environment, was to some degree unsettled by the reality of the raw emotions that still lived on – just as the legacies of the Holocaust should unsettle everyone. No argument ensued; no ill feelings were felt – but there was an unmistakable tension there.
I’m also certain I was far from the only one there that night who noted the irony of the situation, where the interpersonal dynamic in the documentary we’d all just viewed was now being played out live before our eyes. But the most beautiful thing about this event was what happened in the weeks and months that followed. Of all the survivor-volunteers at the Holocaust Centre, Moshe was the one who developed the deepest friendship with Dominic. They became very close and when it came time for Dominic to return home, Moshe was visibly saddened to see him go. I remember Moshe acknowledging this publicly at a later screening they both attended.
I have no doubt that Dominic would be even more saddened to know that Moshe is no longer with us.
Moshe Fiszman died on 13 May 2019. He was 97 years old.
Moshe had not long before been awarded the Order of Australia Medal, and had just reviewed the page proofs for his memoir My Vow to Never Forget, which recounts his wartime experiences in a visceral way on every page. The posthumous launch of Moshe’s memoir was a moving one.
Moshe’s generosity would extend well beyond participating in those film screenings. Over the years, he greeted thousands of visitors to the museum, offered his testimony Aboriginal men in alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs, and in 2016 told his story to a group of university students I took to the Centre on a field trip. I might write and talk about the problem of engaging an audience a lot in my work, but Moshe had no trouble doing this with his dynamic performances: emotional yet composed; calm yet passionate; angry yet always seeking to help others learn.
The theme of this Digital Zones site means that pretty much all of the blogs I post here are in some way related to social and digital media. It wouldn’t worry me is there were no connections in Moshe’s story to the online world – his story is certainly reason enough to reflect on in and of itself. But as it happens, this admirable man was not averse to new technologies. Moshe would use Facebook to communicate with younger generations beyond their visits to the Holocaust museum, looking for every opportunity to connect with them and to connect them to the history and memory of this tragic past.
When I filmed Moshe telling his story to my students in 2016, I asked him if he would be happy for me to upload it to YouTube.
He told me: ‘Only if you make me famous’.
I’m afraid I can’t do that Moshe. But I can say thank you.