From Košice to Brooklyn

Silvia Fishbaum fought her way to freedom and a new life in America

The Statue of Liberty (photo credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)
The Statue of Liberty
After World War II, two Holocaust survivors settled in Czechoslovakia and had three daughters. The youngest, Sophia, “was known as the little rabble-rouser.” Born with an impulsive nature, Sophia, now known as Silvia Fishbaum, fought, practically from birth, against the limitations of her life as a member of the only Jewish family in a small Czechoslovakian village. Her memoir, Dirty Jewess: A Woman’s Courageous Journey to Religious and Political Freedom, tells the story of her life and her adventures.
Though Fishbaum’s mother worked hard at it, keeping Shabbat special and maintaining a semblance of the preciousness of Judaism was a constant challenge in rural Czechoslovakia. Even as a child, she was already accustomed to being publicly insulted for being a Jew. In Chapter 6, she describes a particularly offensive encounter with an old man on a tram in the relatively large city of Košice.
“In his black work boots and smelly blue overalls, covered with stains, he looked menacing and demonic. He reeked of cheap alcohol and even cheaper tobacco. Unshaven, with greasy gray hair combed over to one side, his meager sense of vanity was exposed just like the bald spot his comb-over failed to conceal,” Fishbaum recalled. He harassed her for her Jewish identity, and, lacking even a single adult defender, she exited the tram quickly and ran to the kosher butcher shop.
In the late 1960s, life in Czechoslovakia became increasingly untenable. Under socialist rule, religion was officially forbidden. Of this period, Fishbaum writes, “Generally speaking, we were afraid of everything.” Carrying barely any possessions, entire families left for America, Israel, Canada, Australia or Western Europe. Bowing to her father’s stubborn refusal to leave, her mother eventually gave up the dream to emigrate.
Fishbaum never did. After completing high school, she attempted escape.
“The thought of living in America so excited me that I threw all caution to the wind,” she wrote. “For years, I had been secretly plotting my escape. Ever since I was a little girl, digging a hole with my pail and shovel beside the water well in Poruka, I had pictured this moment. Nothing else mattered now except for my exodus. This wasn’t just the whim of a new high school graduate, it was my calling, my life’s purpose.”
At age 25, through a combination of careful planning and unbridled moxie, she made it to New York, flying Pam Am, “which in those days, was considered the best American airline.” After dreaming of this moment for close to two decades, the actual transition was remarkably brief.
“As [the immigration officer] inspected my passport, I kept my eyes wide open and my mouth shut tight. Then he looked me in the eye, and said, ‘Welcome to the United States of America.’ That was all there was to it. He issued my resident alien card right there on the spot. In a split second, I had become a legal resident of the United States.”
Dirty Jewess is the English translation of the Slovakian title Zidovka, originally published in 2010. In Slovakia, the book sold more than 25,000 copies in its first year. While the English is generally technically correct, the reader can practically hear the strains of an Eastern European accent in the text.
What it lacks in literary achievement, this memoir makes up for in inspiration. Fishbaum has not had an easy life. Though she landed on her feet in New York, married a successful Jewish businessman, and enjoyed years of plenty, she became a young widow, losing her beloved husband to his failing heart.
Fishbaum had the book translated “to let my children, family and friends know what it was like growing up in the post-Holocaust communist Czechoslovakia, for those who stayed behind the Iron Curtain – the plight of the second generation. I would like to assure everyone that, yes, your dreams do come true and one should never give up.”
Closing the back cover of Dirty Jewess, most readers, especially those who were American-born, will likely feel a momentary sense of gratitude for the many blessings of their lives.