Pearls of wisdom

Retired U of M physician Robert Fisch, M.D., shares the insights he’s gained during his eventful and influential life
By Jack El-Hai

“Yesterday is past. Tomorrow is a wish. Today is the only time in which to do something.” – Robert O. Fisch, M.D.

Fisch’s painting “Inseparable”

Fisch’s painting “Inseparable” is meant to show how art and medicine are intertwined.

Retired University of Minnesota pediatrician Robert Fisch, M.D., is talented at many things, including storytelling and laughing. The two often go together in his life, and Fisch has indulged his passion for creating aphorisms, wise and wry expressions that say a great deal about the human condition in short bursts. He has collected 450 of the best in his most recent book, The Sky Is Not the Limit, which he sometimes gives to visitors. “You will enjoy it,” he tells them. “Some of them are very funny, some of them very sad. Some of them are very wise, some not so wise.”

Funny, sad, wise — these words also describe the 90-year-old Fisch himself, who spent a long and influential career at the U of M, drawing from his singular experiences growing up during World War II and applying his professional skills to treat children, particularly those battling the genetic disease phenylketonuria (PKU). Though he’s retired, Fisch stays connected to the U through an important scholarship program that he and his wife, Karen Bachman, established that uses art to broaden the vision and deepen the creative lives of medical students.

If one of Fisch’s own aphorisms sums up his life, it may be, “Love can be learned, even from hate.” He survived the Holocaust, and he found a way to thrive and help others to survive. The months he spent in Nazi camps, and the losses he endured there, changed his life in unexpected ways.

“Remain humane even in inhumane circumstances.”

A native of Hungary, the 19-year-old Fisch was torn from his Jewish family during the war, in 1944, and deported to a forced labor camp. Later, he was sent to Mauthausen concentration camp in a so-called “death march” from western Hungary through the Alps. Even worse, he recalls, was another forced march, this one to Gunskirchen extermination camp — a ploy by the Germans to keep prisoners out of the hands of advancing Allied soldiers. In the company of thousands of sick and near-dead prisoners, he walked in frequently stormy winter weather, went for days without food and water, and saw guards randomly shoot his fellow prisoners.

Despite the pain and horror, Fisch witnessed surprising gestures of kindness and generosity. Civilians chanced all to throw food to passing prisoners, a guard gave exhausted men unexpected time off from work, and his physically disabled family nanny, a Catholic nurse, took the dangerous risk of hiding Fisch’s mother. Soon after his liberation by American forces on May 4, 1945, a hungry German approached him and pleaded for food. Fisch hated the Germans, wanted to see them all dead, and was of no mind to show compassion for one of his former tormenters. “But I had to make a choice,” he says. Although he did not think he could forgive the Germans, Fisch chose not to treat them as his captors had treated him. Instead, he looked to his memory of his father’s teachings. “I gave the German some food,” says Fisch. His father, as well as most of his other relatives, did not survive the war.

“We forget more and more with increasing age, so that when we meet with God, we will have nothing to complain about.”

After the war, Fisch tried to pursue his interest in architecture. The bureaucratic hurdles to attending architecture school were too high, however, and he turned to his second choice, medicine. “I was not born wanting to save mankind,” he says. “Don’t expect that from me. But I liked medicine very much, and I took it seriously.” He graduated from medical school and studied art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest. Caught up in the action when Hungary’s anticommunist revolution broke out in October 1956, Fisch and his colleagues stepped in to help, providing medical care to the injured — Hungarian and Russian alike. 

An illustration from the book Light from the Yellow Star

Illustrations from the book Light from the Yellow Star by Robert O. Fisch, M.D.

His political activities made it dangerous for Fisch to remain in Hungary, so he immigrated to the United States the following year and had to choose where to pursue his internship in pediatrics. “They showed me a map, and I put my finger on Minneapolis, just like that,” he recalls. He did not know a single person there, but the random decision was a good one for him. 

At the University of Minnesota, “I started a new life at 33 years of age, and I couldn’t have come to a better place.” Fisch says he felt no culture shock at the U of M, only welcome. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “The head of my department invited me during my first summer to his home, which was up north somewhere. We went with a boat, took it to an island, and we cooked outside. It was beyond anything I could dream about. These were wonderful people.”

“The biggest risk is not to take any.”

Fisch had completed his internship and residency when a colleague who was leaving the University asked him to take care of his patients, many of whom had PKU. An inherited disorder caused by the body’s inability to metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine, PKU appears in infancy and can result in seizures, malformations, developmental delays, and mental disabilities. 

Fisch had never considered himself a medical researcher, but PKU became the focus of his professional life. He improved PKU treatment and was the first to help a woman with PKU deliver a healthy baby using a gestational carrier. “We somehow became the U.S. center for research on PKU,” says Fisch, who authored 50 papers on the metabolic disease. 

“Art relieves human suffering. It is an alternative medicine.”

Meanwhile, Fisch continued pursuing his long-held interest in art and resumed his study of painting at the U of M and at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. His artwork has been exhibited around the world, but he is convinced that making art can confer far more than honors upon the artist. He extols the potential of art to encourage contemplation, broaden the mind, and deepen one’s capacity to understand and appreciate the experiences of others. “Living is an art, and medicine is an art form to make life a little better and a little longer,” he has written. “Art and medicine are two consequences of the same desire to sustain life.”

One of Fisch’s own paintings, “Inseparable” — which shows the connection and dual roles of hands holding a scalpel and a paintbrush — serves as the graphic identity of the unique scholarship he endowed for University of Minnesota medical students. 

Each year since 2007, several students have been selected to receive Fisch Art of Medicine Student Awards — funds that allow them to devote time to the exploration of an artistic interest. By taking time to step away from the intensity of their medical studies and focus on artistic expression, Fisch believes, they will become better doctors. During their year in the program, students have used the opportunity to immerse themselves in jewelry making, dance, photography, music, drawing, painting, and other artistic pursuits. Fisch meets with all of the award recipients during their artistic ventures. The year ends with a celebration at the Weisman Art Museum on the Twin Cities campus during which the recipients give presentations on their creative work and display it.

An illustration from the book Light from the Yellow Star

Illustration from the book Light from the Yellow Star by Robert O. Fisch, M.D.

“Students credit the program for personal transformation,” says Jon Hallberg, M.D., who administers the Fisch Art of Medicine Student Awards, “including bringing them new happiness, more self-confidence, the reawakening of old passions, even stress reduction. Few see their efforts as a one-time-only experience.”

“At the end, look not with sorrow but with joy at what has happened.”

Fisch’s first book (he’s written several) focuses on his Holocaust experience,which he often discusses with groups of young people as well as adults. “I never talk of forgiveness for murderers,” he says, “but I ask people to respect others as much as anyone would expect to be respected.” He tells his audiences that they should not get stuck in the past or depend too much on the future; instead, they should treat every day as a gift. “When I put a potato in the microwave, that to me is a joy,” he observes. Even horrendous events from the past can lead to enlightenment and love. “As beautiful pearls are produced by the suffering of an oyster,” he says, “so the Holocaust created beautiful heroes…. We can learn good things even from the worst experience.”

Through his medical work, art, and distinctive perspective on the intertwining of horrors of the past and a brighter potential for the future, Fisch has left an enduring mark on the University. As he has memorably aphorized, “I have a special obligation to show that my life has been more than survival.”

Photo slideshow: A selection of paintings by Robert O. Fisch, M.D.

“I had unforgettable teachers. They offered students more than opportunity. They gave us encouragement. That generous nature helped us grow personally and professionally. In those early days and later as a colleague, I realized creativity is a core strength that stretches across the department and the medical school.”</span><span>originaldate</span><span> 1/1/0001 6:00:00 AM</span><span>width</span><span> 1280</span><span>height</span><span> 720</span><span>Spring, oil on canvas</span><span>originaldate</span><span> 1/1/0001 6:00:00 AM</span><span>width</span><span> 1280</span><span>height</span><span> 720</span><span>Summer, oil on canvas</span><span>originaldate</span><span> 1/1/0001 6:00:00 AM</span><span>width</span><span> 1280</span><span>height</span><span> 720</span><span>Fall, oil on canvas</span><span>originaldate</span><span> 1/1/0001 6:00:00 AM</span><span>width</span><span> 1280</span><span>height</span><span> 720</span><span>Winter, oil on canvas</span><span>originaldate</span><span> 1/1/0001 6:00:00 AM</span><span>width</span><span> 1280</span><span>height</span><span> 720</span><span>Night, oil on canvas</span><span>originaldate</span><span> 1/1/0001 6:00:00 AM</span><span>width</span><span> 1280</span><span>height</span><span> 720</span><span>The Birds, gouache on paper</span><span>originaldate</span><span> 1/1/0001 6:00:00 AM</span><span>width</span><span> 1280</span><span>height</span><span> 720</span><span>That is the Symbol of Love, gouache on paper</span><span>originaldate</span><span> 1/1/0001 6:00:00 AM</span><span>width</span><span> 1280</span><span>height</span><span> 720</span><span>A Flower, gouache on paper</span><span>originaldate</span><span> 1/1/0001 6:00:00 AM</span><span>width</span><span> 1280</span><span>height</span><span> 720</span><span>Flower and a Leaf, gouache on paper</span><span>originaldate</span><span> 1/1/0001 6:00:00 AM</span><span>width</span><span> 1280</span><span>height</span><span> 720</span><span>Dawn, oil on canvas</span><span>This painting won first place in a medical art organization’s contest in Washington, D.C.</span><span>originaldate</span><span> 1/1/0001 6:00:00 AM</span><span>width</span><span> 1280</span><span>height</span><span> 720</span><span>Butterflies in Kaleidoscope, oil on canvas</span><span>For his wife, Karen Bachman</span><span>originaldate</span><span> 1/1/0001 6:00:00 AM</span><span>width</span><span> 1280</span><span>height</span><span> 720</span>

Published on October 19, 2015

About this photo

Robert Fisch, M.D., painted “Creation” (above) as a gift to the Department of Pediatrics. The art is prominently displayed at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. (Photo: Joey McLeister for the Star Tribune

Book cover "Light from the Yellow Star"

Lessons of love

Robert Fisch, M.D., wrote and illustrated his first book, Light from the Yellow Star: A Lesson of Love from the Holocaust, after a school principal learned of his wartime background from a magazine article Fisch had written and suggested he write a book. After Light from the Yellow Star was published, in 1994, Fisch’s 17 paintings from the book were exhibited at the Weisman Art Museum as well as at galleries in Germany, Austria, Israel, and Hungary. Fisch traveled, too, accepting invitations to speak to school-children around the world. The experience led to publication of a second book, Dear Dr. Fisch: Children’s Letters to a Holocaust Survivor, in 2004.