An aliyah for a Ukrainian Jewish centenarian now living in San Diego
By Eddie Rosenberg
Yasher Koach….May your strength be firm.
SAN DIEGO–As we hope for one to have the strength to continue learning Torah and to uphold both the scroll and its contents after being honored with an aliyah, at 100 years old, Michel Fisher is the embodiment of “koach.”
Michel Fisher (Michel Lazer ben Yitzchak) was born on the sixth of February, 1910 in Zhitomir, Ukraine. This month, in celebration of his 100th birthday, Young Israel of San Diego will honor Mr. Fisher in the most fitting way – with an aliyah with undoubtedly a most exuberant “Yasher Koach!” .
Mr Fisher received his earliest education in Russia at a Jewish cheder for young boys. He remembers the rebbe walking with a hunched back (a posture most likely acquired as the result of long hours of constant Torah studying.) Michel was told to sit with an older boy, and they read Chumash together. The Fisher home shared a courtyard with the synagogue, and the cheder was located within a small room there. Michel recalls that there were 20 boys in the cheder. Soon thereafter, the Soviets took over Ukraine; the rabbi had passed away, and Michel was sent to School #12, a Jewish primary school of four grades, where secular subjects like geography and botany were taught in Yiddish.
He still recalls the teachers’ names – Moshe Lerner and later a Mr. Chmilanovich. Michel then attended fifth through ninth grade in a further Jewish school, #29, where he learned Russian. He fondly recalls holiday festivities like Chanukah, when the children would dance in circles and sing traditional holiday tunes.
Mr. Fisher has powerful memories of his Bar Mitzvah in the synagogue of his youth, where his religious mother played in central part in the womens’ section, being a capable reader of Hebrew. Women were on the second floor of the synagogue, and Mr. Fisher’s mother, always dressed elegantly for services, would often have to read and explain parts of the services to those who could not understand what was happening as the men davened on the first level.
Michel was called for service in the Soviet Red Army in 1929, where he successfully completed training in the handling of the automobile (which was a relatively new machine then). After leaving the service – and for the majority of his long life – he became a driver. In 1939, Michel was recalled into army service in the 44 Division of the Tank Corps named “Shors” where he was involved in the Soviet attack on Poland, followed by the Russian War in Finland. At the end of 1940, he returned home and continued working as a driver for a furniture factory.
On the first day of the German attack on the USSR, Michel Fisher was again called for duty. He served in the active military on several fronts, assisting pilots in the Soviet Air Force under attack and bombardment. Pilots were a prized commodity for the Soviets, and it was Mr. Fisher’s job to tranport them and care for their needs as they prepared for aerial fighting against the German airforce. He finished his service in 1945 in Vernochen, just 20 kilometers from Berlin, where he signed his name on the Reichstag Wall along with other Soviet soldiers. He was decorated with multiple medals for bravery. He considers it a divine blessing that he has survived through three wars and had never been injured. He says, “Even the great Stalin would have given half of his empire for my longevity, but only the one G-d of the Jews has seen to bless me with this gift.”
When Michel returned home in 1945, he learned of the horrific tragedy that occurred to his large family and loved ones at the hands of the (mostly Ukrainian) Nazis. Everything was destroyed. His own father was killed by his neighbor. His wife remembers that her grandfather’s beautiful long, white beard was cut from him together with the flesh underneath. Like many survivors of Nazi brutality, the Fishers do not like to dwell on such painful memories. They would much rather count their blessings.
In 1992, Michel and his wife, Hinda, emigrated to the United States, where they settled in San Carlos. At the age of 82, he easily walked two blocks to Young Israel of San Diego and he recalls skipping across Navajo Rd. to Young Israel’s previous location. While he was proud to be one of few Russian immigrants to regularly attend synagogue, he remains saddened by the fact that so many Russians have been deprived of an education about their Jewish heritage, ripped away, as they were, by the Soviet atheist propaganda machine.
Today, Mr. Fisher and his wife feel very thankful to be in the U.S., where technology, especially in the area of medicine, has kept them both alive far longer than they had expected. They are also optimistic about the future of Judaism. Their great-grandchildren go to Hebrew school, and enjoy regaling Mr. and Mrs. Fisher with the stories and songs of the Jewish holidays. Anyone visiting their home can’t help but enjoy seeing all the photos of their many family simchas. Not one to be idle, Mr. Fisher is still very active in the work of the WWII Veterans Museum and Memorial Center in San Diego. He has been married to his wife, a neighbor since childhood, for 64 years. They have two children, six grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren.
Mr. Fisher smiles as he reflects on Rabbi Chaim Hollander recently telling him, “not everybody receives the blessing of such longevity.” Now, though, his legs “won’t cooperate” as recent neurological surgery to repair an injury from his youth damaged a nerve that, according to his doctors, should have precluded him from ever walking again. However, with the help of friends, he makes the walk to synagogue on many Saturday mornings. Michel Fisher deeply appreciates the honors and warm reception given him at Young Israel of San Diego and likewise disperses blessing to every Jew who attends services.
As the Fishers eagerly await the arrival to San Diego of so many of their extended family – especially their 75 year old son from Russia – to celebrate this momentous birthday, Michel Fisher smiles broadly and quips, “What more could I need?”
Yasher Koach, Mr. Fisher, from Jews everywhere!
Rosenberg is a freelance writer based in San Diego