Cocalico Corner: A prisoner of his own making

By on June 29, 2016
Joseph Hirt

Joseph Hirt

Rarely do news articles arouse simultaneously outrageous and profoundly sympathetic responses.

But in the Lancaster and Berks areas over the past couple of weeks, there was news involving an area man that did just that.

It was back in early June that reporters at the Reading Eagle and LNP first broke the story of Joseph Hirt of the Adamstown area who had become pretty well known for relating his stories about surviving Auschwitz. Auschwitz, of course, is the despicable concentration camp where tens of thousands of Jews were humilated and murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust of World War II.

Hirt, 91, was a regular on the scholastic and civic organization circuit relating his harrowing experience during the Holocaust, part of which he said involved an escape from Auschwitz. Audiences young and old were spellbound by these talks. They were also lied to by Hirt.

The revelation about Hirt’s misstatements surfaced with letters sent to local news outlets by Andrew Reid, a New York history teacher who heard Hirt lecture his students in April and immediately realized parts of the story were false.

Reid provided documentation that backed his claims. He included that information in letters sent simultaneously to Hirt and to the local news entities that had covered his talks. Reid demanded that Hirt publicly rescind his story and apologize publicly as well. When contacted by the media, Hirt’s nephew, Michael Hirt who lives in Illinois, backed up Reid’s assertions.

Michael Hirt said he didn’t know why his uncle lied about his time at Auschwitz when Joseph Hirt’s real story is breathtaking in and of itself.

What is true about Joseph Hirt’s life is astonishing. In the company of his father and grandparents, he escaped his native Poland to Belgrade. But they fled that city as the Germans bombed it.

Their journey took them to Italy. In 1944, Hirt was among those ultimately rescued by Americans and became one of fewer than 1,000 refugees who were taken in by the United States and granted “guest” status at the Emergency Refugee Shelter at Fort Ontario in Oswego, N.Y., as Reid’s research showed.

A European Jewish youth on the run from Nazis and one of the few to find asylum in the U.S. his is indeed an amazing story, one strong enough to stand on its own as a compelling narrative.

For many years Hirt told his story to students in packed high school auditoriums and to adults at venues set up by local non-profits. As recently as October of 2014, he drew more than 200 people to Peace United Church of Christ at a talk arranged by the Adamstown Area Library.

It was at these venues, Hirt would display dramatic photos, one allegedly of himself as an emaciated Auschwitz prisoner. He would also display the numbers tattooed on his arm, allegedly by the Nazis.

Listeners sat entranced, stunned at this man’s experiences, buoyed by the power of human perseverance.

Now, those same listeners across four generations, are dealing with the news that much of what they heard was a lie.

Hirt released a 15-page letter, published in both LNP and the Reading Eagle, acknowledging his untruths and apologizing to the public.

Hirt said his motives were pure — to make sure the Holocaust and its victims were never forgotten. Indeed, the tattoo on his arm which he had done years after the war ended, was a tribute to a man named Primo Levi, one of victims of Auschwitz who survived only to commit suicide years after his liberation.

But those pure motives were accompanied by honorariums charged for those speeches and appearances.

In his letter, Hirt stated:

“I ask that you forgive me if you feel you can, forget me if you feel you must, but keep the truth and memory of the Holocaust always in your heart and mind.

“…I ask your prayers and support, as I do as much as I can to right the wrong.”

Today, Hirt, whose health is declining, said he is working with his pastor and mental health professionals to cope with his actions — and to better understand them.

Those who have heard him speak and reported on his words must do the same. Trust breached by one reflects skepticism towards all.

President Ronald Reagan famously used the line: “Trust, but verify” frequently. That three-decade-old statement certainly applies to this matter.

For years, Hirt spoke, folks listened, journalists reported. But, in April, a New York state history teacher put Hirt’s two-and-two together and the numbers just didn’t add up.

It’s tough to take to task a nonagenarian, especially one who has lived in the community for years.

But a lie is a lie is a lie.

I think of my college roommate whose four grandparents all died in concentration camps and of her parents, now gone, whose youth was scarred and lives nearly destroyed by the Nazis. I think of my roommate whose eyes would tear up when the rest of us would talk about seeing our grandparents and the generational threads we were lucky to have and she would never know.

I think about Severin Fayerman, a popular Berks Countian, a true survivor of the Auschwitz camp who came to America after liberation and created a wonderful family and a terrific business, Baldwin Brass, that employed many, affording them great lives. He told his true story to hundreds. Two years after his death at 92, he remains revered by those who knew him. His story and his life were one true thing.

I guess the real caveat of this is simple: Listener beware. Even the most familiar of storytellers may be more prone to fiction than fact.

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