In the comfort and company of loving family and friends, Fred Fragner passed away the afternoon of Shabbat Zachor, 5769, (March 7, 2009).
May his memory be a blessing, and may his story continue to inspire and inform teachers for generations to come.
On April 28, 2003, Western Washington University recognized Holocaust survivors Noémi Ban, Magda Dorman, and Fred Fragner for their contributions to education. Kunle Ojikutu, Special Assistant to the President for Diversity, presented Mr. Fragner with a plaque which read:
Western Washington University Recognizes
For his willingness to bear witness to the unfathomable events of the Holocaust, his dedication to the pursuit of truth, his contributions to dissemination of knowledge, and his service to our academic community.
Special Assistant to the President for Diversity
Fred Fragner was born in Nový Jičín, Czechoslovakia, in 1915. Later he moved to Prague, where he attended Charles University seeking a Ph.D. in Psychology. When Czechoslovakia was occupied by Germany in 1938, he joined with members of partisan fighter underground and attacked Nazis, their installations and their collaborators. His decision to do so was based on his strong belief that every man and woman must stand up for what they believe. They attacked by day and retreated to the woods by night. With a smile he will tell you that sleeping on the ground, in all kinds of weather, was enough to convince me that he never wanted to go camping again.
During the three years he served as a member of the underground, and it was at this time that he learned that his entire family, along with my entire Jewish community was gone - deported by the Nazis to the death camps. This is a loss from which he has never recovered. When he talks to kids in schools, the first question he asks them is, "You wake up one morning and your parents, your family all your friends are gone. What does this mean?"
Three years later, during one raid on a prison in which his comrades were confined, he was shot, captured, interrogated and tortured by the Gestapo. Shortly thereafter the Nazis deported him to the concentration camp at Buchenwald where for the next five years he endured conditions and treatment beyond comprehension, beyond descriptive words known to humanity. Five years later, on May 5th, 1945, he was liberated. His physical ordeal ended; but the damage still pervades. Screaming memories of death and dismemberment still haunt him. He says, "I don't call myself a 'survivor' of the Holocaust because physically, emotionally and spiritually, I have
not yet fully escaped the anger, anxiety and depression of my imprisonment."
Upon regaining his freedom, he went to work for the United Nations in Germany, as school principal, teacher, and with his wife, as a houseparent at the 150+ bed Children's Center for War Orphans at Aglasterhausen. Here he worked with children of different nationalities, religious and cultural backgrounds, children who had
suffered the most traumatic experiences, and taught them how to live together amiably. Fred explains that working with these children "saved my life." Together we created an atmosphere of kindness and understanding, of love, freedom, democracy and brotherhood, of cooperation, trust, and most important, of unforgettable healing relationships. He encouraged his children to speak of their strengths, not of their weaknesses. After all, it is our strengths that we must focus upon in order to improve ourselves. One year later, he came to America with 60 of his children and helped them to find new homes. Fred says, "despite it all, I have had a good life.
The following questions and answers were taken from an interview with Fred Fragner on November 20th, 2008. The questions were asked by WWU graduate assistants Jamie Daniels and Dave Morrin.
Question: What is the most important thing that you think young people should learn about the Holocaust?
Fred Fragner: I think the most important thing young people should learn about the Holocaust is try to research and if possible gain a better understanding as to the forces which led to the Holocaust. I think because there have been other Holocausts too, and there are still Holocausts now in Africa and other places, and in order to try to cope with the Holocausts we have to understand what were, and what are, the forces which push us to do horrible things. There are all kinds of reasons, psychosocial and all kinds of hatred and etc….But the most important thing is to do research, study, be objective, have a historical background, you really have to know something about the history of the world and see what led other people to this hatred for each other which resulted in a Holocaust.
Teaching takes two parties, the students and the teachers. Teacher has to have some knowledge and conviction. He and she who are teaching need to know it’s important enough to talk with the students, to be taught by the students. Students should be motivated or hope to be motivated, encouraged to do their own research study, follow up studies, work in small groups, etc. When I was teaching at college we had smaller groups. Divide the class up into small groups and have the groups do their own research.
Question: From the perspective you have as a survivor of the Holocaust, why do you think there is so much hate in the world? Either directed towards Jews, or hate directed towards others?
Fred Fragner: This is the million dollar question. Really the question is, why is there so much hatred, PERIOD? Somehow, some people manage to find someone or something to hate. You question if the whole world is mentally ill. Why do people have to hate, why do people have to hate against somebody? It’s a highly pathological thing -- wars, hatred -- this is a manifestation, you know, it's like a weapon. Whether you hate Jews, Catholics, or whoever, you can always find someone to hate if you need to. To find out ABC you have to start with A. Perhaps there is so much hatred because people haven’t learned yet how to respect each other, how to love each other – love each other sometimes in spite of each other. Respect our rights, respect our differences, respect and find ways to resolve problems in talking with each other.
Question: What was the philosophy at Aglasterhausen?
Fred Fragner: As much knowledge as possible, respect for all of the children who came from different religions and cultures. We tried to foster respect for their right to their beliefs, their holidays, also the notion that people of different religions should respect each others' differences.
This was very successful. This is my ultimate happiness -- life with the children, with the school. I am a very easy-going person but there are certain things that I will not tolerate. I wouldn't tolerate intolerance to others.
Question: How did multiculturalism shape the children’s experiences at Aglasterhausen?
Fred Fragner: Aglasterhausen was full of different cultures -- social cultures, and ethnic cultures, different levels of education. Some problems we had were actually with some of the adults and staff because of their religious beliefs. They felt they had a responsibility to make sure the children followed their beliefs. Services were available to the children, and we had a priest, minister, chaplain, rabbi. We did have problems with the Catholic priest because he was doing more than we were allowing the center to do, so we excused him. We celebrated all the different religious holidays and all national holidays so children learned about the meaning of every holiday. Holidays were happy things at Aglasterhausen.
Question: Do you still keep in touch with people you met through Aglasterhausen?
Fred Fragner: I still talk to a couple of them. One woman who lived in Aglasterhausen is in New York now, and she married a man who was also in a concentration camp during World War II. He is very active & well-known in the United Nations. She is married to him and they have a very nice life.
Question: What is the best life lesson you have ever learned?
Fred Fragner: I think being considerate towards and to others is probably the best lesson I have ever learned.
Question: If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
Fred Fragner: It’s a very complex question, because we are dealing with the nature of human beings. We are dealing with billions of people with different cultures, different lifestyles, and different beliefs. They have not learned yet how to accept each other, and accept each other’s right to have their own beliefs and lives. The result is lack of acceptance. Instead of trying to be helpful to each other and reaching out and working together, we are so preoccupied with anger and hatred. Everyone believes they are right and everybody else is wrong and what we believe is what everyone else should believe, and this leads to hatred, wars, etc.
Question: Do you have a life Motto?
Fred Fragner: I lived a long life so I have many stories. So I’m going to throw something at you and see if you think this is a big story or not. But I think it aligns with my life philosophy. Someday when I die I want to feel that I made a difference to somebody, so I wrote this line 2-3 years ago. I was driving my car through an intersection, and I stopped of course at the red light. I saw a gentleman in his late forties on crutches crossing the street. I was waiting for the light to turn green, when the gentlemen tripped on the sidewalk and fell. I got out of my car to help him, and the cars behind me got very impatient with me because I had gotten out. They were in such a hurry and kept on honking at me. The point of the story is when I came to him and helped him to get up, I asked him if we was okay and if there was anything I could do. He said “thanks, I am okay.” So he kept on walking, and I drove home. What I have done, there is nothing special about it. When somebody is in trouble, you reach out. The gentleman might not have ever thought of me again, but when I got home I realized how important it is to reach out to somebody who is in trouble. Sometimes it’s more important to the person who reaches out than to the person who is in need.
Question: Could what happened in Eastern Europe happen in the United States?
Fred Fragner: When I came here to the United States I got the same question from somebody. I said, absolutely. I have seen it before. One of the stories I have seen in the newspaper was in the 60's, I think, in the state of Indiana or Iowa, the mid-western states -- there were farmers who suddenly turned against Jews. No connection between one and the other. But it seems some people always have to have somebody to hate. In Russia before revolution, most of the land and everything was owned by the government. There was distrust, people didn’t own anything really and the people started to get upset and the government was concerned there may be some revolution or something -- the government needed to throw help to farmers/peasants but of course they did what they did in Russia, pogroms where they killed Jews. Going back to Christians, when Christianity started it had a voice, it was seen as a threat. Different methods to hate, but similar. All of this doesn’t sound good but unfortunately reflects in a sad way how we deal with this and how inhumane we are and how we do inhumane acts depriving people of their rights including rights to be alive.
Question: Did you wonder why it took the US so long to enter into the war? What was that like for you? Did you wonder where the US was during the war?
Fred Fragner: There are no simple answers. It depends to whom you talk to, what kind of excuses they have. There are all different interpretations, and I take all of them with a grain of salt. I know as a fact that during the ghettos in Europe, there were thousands of Jews including my whole family who were sent to extermination. There was a Polish army Captain -- this was the underground army. He was shipped, smuggled out of Poland and out of the concentration camp to England. He met with Winston Churchill, met with President Roosevelt; he gave them proof about what was going on, yet nothing happened. Nothing happened. The question: why not? It was one of the questions, for example, people in Buchenwald very frequently asked ourselves. There were, for example, B-2 factories, and other things which would drive industry: armament, ammunition. Why didn't American & British planes bomb these?
Look at the map of world: who are our friends and our enemies? What kind of criteria do we use to declare who are our friends & who are our enemies? Are we determining by who has oil, or who has uranium or other resources? Before the Civil War, who provided free slaves? What I'm trying to say is that our way of thinking is somewhat corrupt. Really don’t think that what we are doing in international relationships may be peaceful; for what purpose is our military fighting in Iraq, or maybe the question of economy or international economy being based on who is going to provide a group of very important people in government the biggest profits/benefits. To make it very simple you look at our wars. Look at England, England almost owned the whole world at one point, with the British Empire – look at Germany and France and the biggest countries and how the Middle East was occupied by France Germany and England. Why? Why did these countries do it? I want to think more positive, but I am having a hard time thinking like that. I read a lot. I read several papers, and my reading is not only about the present but also the past, and I say oh my God. For example, in one of my discussion groups a question came up and nobody had an answer to which everybody agrees: why Abraham was willing to kill his son? Why did he? All kinds of different answers. All kinds of rationalizations for all kinds of things.
Question: What do you think about the state of schools in America today? Do you have any advice to school principals or teachers?
Fred Fragner: This is a hard question because I tend to go primarily by the European models. This raises other questions. I don't think that schools in the United States necessarily have a clear mission. They must start with a question like “what is our mission” or “what is the mission of teaching?” My own feeling about teaching, I think the whole process of growing up, the gradual process of learning -- we learn from parents and we learn from teachers, hopefully. We should learn different things; we should try to absorb/learn as much information about different cultures, different political issues, different social issues, as possible. And this information should be processed in high school possibly even before.
And when possible, it should be learned in smaller groups. I would like to see a situation where smaller groups of students would have an opportunity to digest, like we are talking now, with the others and talk about what everyone thinks and what ideas come up. Because nobody has all the answers. I wouldn’t be the President for anything; I think it’s just crazy!
This is a great question. I don’t know if the solution can be found in big groups or in small groups or what, but there should be some people who represent a wide range of point of views with different backgrounds & educational focuses, and those people would ideally first approach their own small group and later all sit down together and see the bigger picture.
Question: If President-Elect Obama were to call you on the telephone to ask you of some advice, what would your advice to Mr. Obama be?
Fred Fragner: I would say Mr. President, just be Obama. What I read about him and studied about him, he is a very sound man for the job. I am proud of him, and I voted for him. You know, I rooted for Ms. Clinton originally because I thought she was more experienced but after listening to both sides I became a fan of Obama and I think he is fantastic. He will be successful if he continues to be the way he is, with his high quality, his patience, his ability to think through and to be concerned about matters of the world and not look for easy answers because there are none. I think that in principle, he should surround himself with people who are set to certain philosophies of life, government responsibilities to people, but this doesn’t exclude people who have different ideas. There may be Republicans, Democrats, Independents who may have different ideas. For example. with my health program, I think that from my own practice when I was director of outpatient clinics I always addressed the staff, and it was always a wide open discussion. I was just one of many and I realized my limitations. This is a very interesting experience I had when I was asked by the Governor to open a substance abuse clinic; I said to him we need to do it. He said okay, and I appointed a colleague of mine to be director. After six months I came to visit him, and asked how he was doing. He said, “When I was one of the staff, I was one of many. Here I am all alone.” Whenever you talk to a person who is in charge, it is a very lonely position. There is no one to complain to. So many lessons one learns in a lifetime, if they listen...