Pierre and Bessie Weiser Fenster

Pierre Fenster was born Klaus Peter Fenster on June 7, 1933, in Berlin, Germany. His parents, Erwin and Elsa Fenster, changed his name to Pierre three months later when they fled to France to avoid Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. Most of Pierre’s childhood consisted of constantly moving from place to place to escape the Nazis.

Having lost employment in the German fashion industry, Mr. Fenster and his young family, lived for two and one-half years on the run in a series of military-run refugee camps in the area near Strasbourg, France. The once affluent Fensters, who loved music, now had to live in primitive conditions with no indoor plumbing. Several families had to live together in one room, making any semblance of privacy impossible. They finally managed to settle in Strasbourg for five months until Pierre’s father found employment and moved to Touraine. Mrs. Fenster worked at home.

The family was again at risk when Germany invaded France in 1940. While trying to escape the Nazis, the family slept in barns and sheds. They later moved to the Lyon area where they were able to survive in the countryside until the war’s end.

Pierre’s mother befriended many French people and because of these relationships was able to obtain false identity papers to pass as Christians. They changed everything except their first names and birth dates. As a Christian, Pierre was able to attend public school in Lyon. He later transferred to a Catholic school, eventually becoming a choir boy in the church. In time, however, because of the constant bombing, his parents took him out of school and placed him in a children’s home visiting him frequently. Eventually they brought him back home to live in the countryside because they felt it better that Pierre should be with them while bombs were flying.

For a time his father joined the French Army, disappearing without a trace for months causing Pierre much angst as he was sure he would never see his father again. Luckily Mr. Fenster appeared some months later to great rejoicing. Among other jobs, Pierre’s father was a cook and a private detective.

During their stay in Lyon’s countryside, everything was rationed; food was scarce, but children were allowed a small quantity of skim milk. During the last year of the war, life became very stressful for the Fensters. The French militia had joined with the Nazis, and the family came close to being detected on three occasions. Fortunately, they were tipped off by their neighbors that the Germans were coming and were able to avoid the perpetrators.

Pierre’s family owned a short wave radio which they managed to keep hidden since possessing a radio was illegal, but it was worth the risk as it helped them follow the war’s progress and hear secret messages that they tried to decode. It was through the radio that the family knew the war was coming to an end.

Pierre remembered when the Allies came to liberate his village outside Lyon. They became friends with the American soldiers who stayed in the village, especially the Jewish soldiers. It was through them and reading their comics that Pierre learned to speak English. Mr. Fenster, taking advantage of the situation, started selling liquor in GI clubs.

Following liberation the Fenster family lived in a villa outside Lyon. Through a newspaper listing relatives seeking surviving family members, Pierre’s father found his brother living in a refugee camp in Shanghai, China. His brother was able to secure visas for both his and Pierre’s family to move to America. The Fensters arrived in Rochester in 1953. Pierre, now twenty years old, worked in the clothing industry until he joined the army. As an American soldier, Pierre was stationed in France where he served as an interpreter in disputes between French landlords and American officers and also for the French court. After his discharge, Pierre went to work for the Automobile Club where he developed his love of travel and eventually started his own travel agency, Pierre’s World of Travel.

Pierre met his wife, Bess at a wedding in New York. They were married in October, 1955. They gave birth to two sons, Remy and Edward. He died on March 18, 2013 at the age of 79.

Biography written by:  Phyllis Kasdin
Photograph by Louis Ouzer