Ester Fiszman 1930-2019

October 4, 2019 by  
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The passing of Esther Fiszman at age 89 severs another vital link to our living past. Esther was a living witness to both humanity’s darkest hours. And to humanity’s warmest moments with Australia openly welcoming distraught European migrants post the war to build a new life.

Esther Fiszman in her younger years

Esther Fiszman (nee Koplowicz) was born in Poland on 19thJanuary 1930 to Joel and Roisie, and younger sister to Max. Her father died when she was 2 years old. Born into a middle-class family Esther enjoyed a happy typical childhood.

 

All this changed in 1942 when, aged just 12, she and her other Jewish classmates were rounded up and taken directly to Auschwitz. Esther would never see her mother, adopted father and brother again.

On arrival at Auschwitz and on the advice of her non – Jewish teacher,  Esther lied about her age saying that she was in fact 15 not 12. This ensured she was deemed “useful” by her Nazi captors and instead of being sent straight to the gas chambers like many of her school friends, she was put to work in an adjacent munitions factory.

Esther continued to work in the munitions factory throughout her nearly three years in Auschwitz, often attempting to intentionally sabotage the very weapons she was charged with producing.

In late 1944 Esther suffered an acute case of appendicitis that threatened her already undernourished body. In spite of the near impossible circumstances, a fellow inmate named Beppi Lissing managed to organise a crude appendectomy with the help of a male inmate with some medical knowledge.

Come early 1945 as the liberating Russian army neared Auschwitz, the Nazi’s began walking their captors through the Polish winter back towards Germany in what became known as the “death march”. It was during this walk that Esther was finally liberated by Russian troops.

An unfruitful search for any surviving relatives followed before the next stage of Esther’s life began when she met Sam Fiszman at a displaced persons camp in Warsaw. They were married within six weeks on Christmas Day 1945.

Sam and Esther moved to Paris where Sam intended to study journalism with the intent to move to Israel.  While in Paris their daughter, Mia, arrived during the summer of 1948.

Through the intervention of Sam’s aunt who tracked him down via Red Cross, they decided to move to Australia. They arrived on the SS Derna but were refused entry due to Sam’s communist past. If not for the intervention of politician Syd Einfield they would have been returned to Europe.  With Syd’s help they settled in Bondi.  So grateful for the intervention it began Sam’s lifelong and dedicated commitment to the Labor Party. The Einfields became lifelong family friends.

It also began Esther’s passionate and lifelong love affair with Bondi Beach especially from 1951 when they moved to Warners Ave Bondi in 1951.She was known to open and close Bondi Beach and permanently sported a glowing tan offset by vibrant red lipstick.

The Fiszman’s not only settled into Australia’s post world war life – they embraced it. Esther adapted quickly to life in her new surroundings, swiftly learning English and making new friends.

Although a frustrated journalist, and a socialist at heart, husband Sam was a very successful businessman starting out by selling Belgian made “Persian” carpets across the countryside. But he was a gambler. However, Esther would astutely squirrel away his winnings basically by rummaging through his pockets after a win. Eventually presenting Sam with 7000 pounds and an ultimatum – shape up or ship out. With Esther’s savings Univers Carpets was established. Univers became a leading domestic and commercial carpet company for decades.  Sam became a stalwart of the construction and tourism industries and the public park on North Bondi Headland is named after him.

Esther exuded an energy and joy embracing the best that Sydney offered. Including being a regular with Sam at the Glamourous Chevron and Chequers nightclubs. Her family was complete with the arrival of son Robert in 1963.

Esther enjoyed two polar opposite moments of fame. In the days before mobile phones she misdialled Mia’s number.  She had rung top rating MMM breakfast radio announcer Doug Mulray’s show.  Doug was expecting to hear from his surf reporter but got Esther instead. With her Polish accent she immediately challenged Doug Mulray for being in her daughter’s house and asked what he was up to. It ended with Esther actually giving the Bondi surf report saying “come on down the water is fine.”

The phones lit up and Mulray’s writer, Andrew Denton, saw that it was comic gold. So ‘Mrs Fiszman’ became a regular on Mulray’s MMM program dishing out her plain-speaking practical advice delivered with her trademark polish accent. Practical advice she also freely gave to Prime Ministers and Premiers.

Esther was also interviewed by Steven Spielberg in preparation for his Oscar winning movie, Schindler’s List. It was a stressful time for Esther, but the video of that interview is now historically invaluable.

However, she mostly embraced her personal triumphs. As her grandchildren vividly recall, Esther would always roll up her sleeves to expose the 5-digit tattooed Auschwitz number on her left forearm. Even at State dinners Esther’s sleeve would be rolled up exposing the numbered blue ink. This was often an entirely conscious act intended to provoke a conversation and transmit her personal triumph.

Forever marked but never defined by it.

In the 1970s, Esther volunteered to be part of a Public School program run by the Education Department where survivors of the Holocaust visited public schools to talk about their experiences. However Esther was different to the other volunteers as she only talked about her survival, what she did to get through it and about establishing a new life in Australia. She always refused to talk about the atrocities. She was not bottled up in the hatred. Her unstated credo seemed to be that the best revenge is “living well”.

Esther’s happy place was her kitchen table. There she not only cooked up a storm but held court exuding love and warmth. Entertaining everyone with her vivacious personality and zest for life. The kitchen table, for decades, was home for the mandatory Friday night family dinners as well as drop-ins for Sam’s corporate and political guests complete with a light touch of Yiddishkeit.

After her passing, many family and friends recalled those dinners surrounded by unbridled affection, big dogs, cigarette smoke, white wine and endless guests turning up from all walks of life.

Esther Fiszman is survived by daughter Mia, son Robbie, son-in-law Eddie, grandsons Tull and Josh, and great grandchildren Sam, Ezra and Zev.

That a young orphaned Auschwitz survivor can go on to lead such a rich and rewarding life is a triumph of human endeavour. That she can outlive her tormentors to become a great grandmother is a triumph of humanity.

Her close family and friends will never forget Esther. But the world should never forget the likes of Esther Fiszman and her epic story.

David Tierney

Esther Fiszman: January 19, 1930 – September 16, 2019.

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