Obituary : Edith Sarah Fischgrund Plakins
Edith Sarah Plakins, born Fischgrund, died peacefully on February 25, at her home in New Hope, Penn., in the company of her three devoted daughters, Naomi, Ava, and Tamara. Her death fell on the very day of her 90th birthday, after a brief illness during which she faced death with her customary fortitude and grace.
She was born in Michalovce, Czechoslovakia, to Alexander Fischgrund, a rabbi and the official liaison between the Czech federal government and the province's Jewish community, and to Helene (Klein) Fischgrund. The youngest of six children, she was raised in Uzhorod, Czechoslovakia, in a family filled with love and humor, attributes that sustained her throughout her life. By the time she graduated from high school, she was fluent in Hungarian, German, Czech, Hebrew, and English.
In April 1944, she and other members of her family were deported to a Nazi death camp in Auschwitz, Poland. All but she and her sister-in-law were killed immediately. Several months later, she was transferred to a Nazi slave labor camp in Salzwedel, Germany. The moldy potato peelings that she stole from the Nazi kitchen kept her and many of her fellow prisoners alive. On April 14, 1945, the 84th Infantry Division of the United States Army liberated her camp, an event she commemorated every year at Passover, the Jewish festival of freedom.
Within days of her liberation, she sought work and a new life in the nearby city of Hanover, Germany. Because of her fluency in German and English, the British military authority there, Major Thomas S. Chutter, hired her as an interpreter. Major Chutter visited the Plakins home every summer until his death in 1972.
In October 1946 she met an American soldier, Harold Gregory Plakins, who was working for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in Hanover on refugee resettlement. The two were married in April 1947 at the Altneuschule in Prague, the oldest active synagogue in Europe. The couple moved to Zurich, Switzerland, where Dr. Plakins graduated from medical school in 1952, and eventually settled in Wallingford, Conn., where they lived until 2005. From the early 1960s, the family spent part of every summer on the Vineyard, and in 1966 they purchased the former Leaming Arboretum property on Middle Road in Chilmark. Mrs. Plakins loved the Island's beauty and strolling in its towns. She made many friends among both summer visitors and year-round residents. People were drawn to her larger-than-life personality, her wisdom, her sunny and kind disposition, and her fundamental belief in considering each person as an individual.
By temperament, Mrs. Plakins preferred to seek the joy in life rather than recall the suffering. She never wanted to be known merely as a "survivor," and many who knew her were unaware of her background. Yet, in her later years, she felt the responsibility to tell her story and to act on her decades-long desire to thank her liberators. In 1980 and 1987, she contributed her testimony to the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, testimony characterized by one historian as "unusually poetic and expressive." Her contributions, under the name "Edith P.", were excerpted in a television documentary titled "Witness: Voices from the Holocaust," and included in the book of the same name published in 2000. A photograph of the Fischgrund family appears as the book's cover. Her interview with Charlie Rose also aired on television in April 2000.
In the late 1990s, she was able to locate, and personally thank, many of her U.S. Army liberators, with whom she developed deep friendships during a particularly meaningful chapter in her life. At her request, she was buried with her 84th Infantry Division ("Railsplitters") insignia patch.
Although a recent Pennsylvania resident, Mrs. Plakins made many friends from all walks of life in her new home. In 2008, she was an enthusiastic volunteer for the Obama presidential campaign. Her husband of many years died in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, in November 2009.
She is survived by her three daughters, Naomi Plakins of New Hope, Penn., Ava Plakins, of Doylestown, and Tamara Plakins Thornton (son-in-law Jonathan Thornton) of Buffalo, N.Y.; and six granddaughters, Xana, Lydia, Rebecca, Dora, Emily, and Julia. She was buried in Doylestown Cemetery on March 3, 2010.
She survived, transcended, and created anew.