“The idea that a Holocaust survivor disappears, his story does not,” said Irving Roth, a friend of Ray Fishler’s. “His spirit and soul continues to live.”
Fishler, of Wayne, N.J., a former Rockville Centre resident who shared his stories of the Holocaust to inspire local students and families, died on Nov. 19. He was 93, and had pancreatic cancer for over two years.
Roth, who started the Temple Judea of Manhasset Holocaust Resource Center’s Adopt a Survivor Program in 1998, met Fishler that year at the March of the Living, an educational program in which students gather and march from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp complex built during World War II.
A “rare find,” according to Roth, Fishler was articulate and “a wonderful man” who was interested in his program, which gave students of all ages a chance to connect with Holocaust survivors and hear their stories. “Ray Fishler is gone,” Roth said. “His story will not be lost, because there are hundreds of students who he has been working with and who adopted him.”
Fishler was born in 1925 in Kazimierza Wielka, a small town near Krakow, Poland. A teenager at the start of World War II, he spent two years in the Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp, and spent the last five months of the war on death marches to four other camps, including Auschwitz.
He had three brothers and two sisters, but he and his father were the only ones to survive the Holocaust. American soldiers rescued them in 1945. In 1949, Fishler immigrated to the United States, where he worked in the garment industry, eventually owning his own business. In 1958, he and his wife, Rhoda, were married, and the two moved to Rockville Centre in 1969, living there until 2005.
Three Rockville Centre families were among those who adopted Fishler through the Adopt a Survivor Program, and were deeply affected by his teachings. In a eulogy at the Jewish Memorial Chapel in Clifton, N.J., on Nov. 21, Nancy Richner and Susan Heller recalled the weeks that “Ray turned himself inside out” to educate their sons, Lucas and Michael, as well as their friend, Zachary Mandinach. The three boys, who are now 28, were 12 at the time, and spoke with Fishler as a learning experience before their bar mitzvahs.
“Ray was a gatherer and sharer of people and stories — of all ages and places,” Nancy told the Herald. “Once you met him, you were part of Ray’s world, a world of optimism, possibility and always humor. He had seen the worst and opted for the best, inspiring the rest of us to do the same.”
In 2007, the Richners, Hellers and Mandinachs traveled to Poland with the Fishlers to see where Ray grew up. “It was a defining moment I think in everybody’s lives and a transformational event,” Rhoda said.
Nancy and Susan recalled a Polish man named Mr. Skuda, who approached Ray to apologize for driving people to the forest during the war, even though he knew they would be murdered there. The Nazis had threatened to kill Skuda’s family if he did not obey, so he did, they said. Ray was saddened by the story and, to the shock of the families watching, gave some money to Skuda, who remained tortured by the memories of leading people to their death and had fallen on hard times. “Ray looked at us and said. ‘I had a life. He never did,’” Nancy noted in the eulogy.
“His loss is immeasurable,” said Sara Mandinach, Zachary’s mother, who could not make it to the funeral. Her husband, Barry, co-wrote the eulogy. “Being placed with Ray was I think the gift that will give to us for the rest of our lives and the boys’ lives.”
Ray’s lasting impact
Fishler shared his story to South Side Middle School students for years during the school’s annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is now called Acceptance Day.
“It’s a school that really values tolerance and compassion,” said Jen Pascarella, an assistant principal at SSMS. “We don’t just accept acceptance; that’s not enough for us here. . . . It’s deeply rooted in our culture, so when Ray comes, it really solidifies and is just another example.”
Marie Fircz, an eighth-grade language arts teacher who coordinates the event, said he had spoken to students since the event started about 20 years ago until 2016, during which six classes gathered in the auditorium to listen. “It’s amazing, with the story that he brought forth each year and all that he had gone through, that he was able to maintain such a positive and open-arms [attitude] for the world,” she said. “It made him even stronger.”
The school grants the Ray Fishler Award for Tolerance and Compassion annually to an eighth-grader “who is willing to speak up without fear of reprisal,” Fircz noted. “A person who clearly understands what is right and is willing to act accordingly.” The recipient also received the book Fishler wrote, “Once We Were Eight,” which was published in 2014 and tells the story of what happened to him and his family during the Holocaust. His mother had encouraged him to share their story if he survived the war.
Fishler continued to speak at the middle school even after moving to New Jersey, and made the trip in 2016 after being diagnosed with cancer, his daughter, Laura, recalled. Going through a book of thank-you notes from students, she noted, her father connected with those who were being bullied or picked on. He taught never to stereotype or generalize groups of people, and even highlighted to students that not all Nazis were bad people. “He was just filled with love and kindness and compassion,” Laura said.
His funeral was standing-room-only, Rhoda noted. In addition to Rhoda and Laura, he is survived by his son, David and grandchildren Brian, Melissa, Ariel and Daniel.
“He touched many lives, and I think he really gave them a lesson in life,” Rhoda said. “To speak up when you saw an injustice being done, and not to be a stand-by, but to be an upstander.”