By BILLY CATECHIS
The story of a fortunate man and his quest to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.
Peter Fleischmann didn’t end up in a concentration camp. He and his parents didn’t have to hide. But the war, the rise of Hitler, changed everything, tearing him from a happy childhood in Czechoslovakia and flinging him into the world as a refugee.
It all began on January 31, 1927. Fleischmann was born in Jablonec to a wealthy Jewish family: three-story home, a nanny, a maid. His father was a well-educated accountant who’d fought in World War I. His mother owned a wholesale business. The economy was great, the mood progressive. These were the happy, pre-war times.
But 12 years into Fleischmann’s life, happiness came to an end. Fleischmann was no longer allowed to go to school. The town imposed a curfew. He wouldn’t have a Bar Mitzvah until many years later.
“The Germans had occupied all of Czechoslovakia in 1939,” said Fleischmann. “All Nuremberg Laws became effective… So there was no thought, no time to be Bar Mitzvah’d.”
During the occupation, Jewish families, who feared for their lives, banded together to homeschool their children, who were denied their right to education. This too, came to an end quickly.
As a child, Fleischmann understood to a certain extent what was going on.
“I was aware that Germans had occupied Czechoslovakia, I was obviously aware that some of the imposed regulations had a direct effect on me as a youngster,” said Fleischmann. “You have to remember; I was 12 or 13 years old when this happened. I don’t even know whether or not I realized the gravity of the situation, or what would happen. You know, I was a kid.”
Nazis flooded the town of Jablonec. Fleischmann knew that there were Nazis close to home, but how close?
“Right next door to us, a German Major moved into one of the apartments,” said Fleischmann.
With a smile on his face, he said, “By coincidence, I walked our Fox Terrier and he walked his German Shepard every night at the same time. The only problem was our Fox Terrier couldn’t stand his German shepherd. So there, every night, they got into a fight until one night, we said it might not be a great idea to walk them at the same time.”
Shockingly, the decorated soldier didn’t give Fleischmann’s religion a second thought.
Fleischmann’s laugh faded. “He must have known,” he said, speaking of the Nazi. “The area was Jewish.”
Fleischmann said the Major treated him “as a kid, he was nice to me,” in a low and unenthusiastic tone.
“My family was very lucky in this respect,” said Fleischmann. “Because even though we were restricted by the things I mentioned, at the end of March in 1942, we were able to leave Czechoslovakia.”
“Now we could have left a lot earlier because my two uncles left in 1938 and 1939 – one to the US and the other to Israel,” said Fleischmann.
Fleischmann’s father chose not to leave with the uncles because he simply didn’t believe that whatever was rumored to happen would be possible for any human to do.
Who in their wildest dreams could ever believe that what happened during the Holocaust could ever happen? The thought was just unfathomable. His father soon realized that such an event was possible. “Until one day…”
“[My father] could not find his boyhood friend, who was in the banking business, who he had grown up and went to school with, and found out that Gestapo had taken him away.”
This was the deciding factor for his father to plan an exit, and fast. There was a program that allowed families to leave the area. There were just two criteria: the family had to have a sponsor in the country to which you were going, and the second was payment.
“It always worked out that what it cost you to leave was what you had
Fleischmann said.” On the night of March 31, 1941, they embarked on their journey to freedom, along with other fortunate families.
Their train ride was a long one: from Prague, through Berlin, through Frankfurt into France, through Paris and finally into Spain where Fleischmann said he and his family said good riddance. But, the journey wasn’t over yet.
From Spain, they took a weeklong boat ride to Havana, Cuba. He described Cuba as paradise. From there, he arrived at the docks in the pouring rain in New York on June 10, 1941. Coincidently, this was also his mother’s birthday. “It was a sight I will never forget.”
It wasn’t until the mid 70’s that Fleischmann thought about telling his story, as he hadn’t even told his wife what happened. It wasn’t until his daughter watched a show on television and became curious about her father’s past that the three of them and a few of her friends took a trip to Europe. There, Fleischmann gave them a tour of his life and all of his travels.
From this point on, he got involved with a few organizations, including the Jewish Federation in Scotch Plains. He was invited to schools to tell his story and educate students on the Holocaust. He also regularly attends field trips with groups of high school seniors to go and visit the Holocaust Museum.
Why does Mr. Fleischmann want to tell his story and educate students?
“One of the reasons I thought [my story] was important was [because] I wanted the story preserved for future generations. I want them to be totally aware of what happened so that history doesn’t repeat itself, even though it’s still happening today.”