AT THE commemoration ceremony are, from left, Aachen Mayor Marcel Philipp, survivors Evelina Merowa (who lives in Prague), Dita Kraus (who lives in Netanya) and Hans Gaertner (Prague), Rachel Masel (Fredy Hirsch’s niece, who lives in Kiryat Ono) and Aachen Jewish Community chairman Dr. Robert Neugrö.
(photo credit: COURTESY CITY OF AACHEN)
Special to The Jerusalem Post AACHEN, Germany – Alfred “Fredy” Hirsch, a Zionist educator in Nazi-occupied Europe, saved the lives of many Jewish children and provided many others with a glimpse of confidence and dignity in the direst of circumstances.
Hirsch established and ran the so-called children blocks in Auschwitz, which granted small but critical and often live-saving privileges to the youngest prisoners of the camp, where he died March 8, 1944, under circumstances not fully resolved.
Thursday would have been his 100th birthday. The municipality of Aachen, Germany, where Hirsch was born on February, 11 1916, and where he started his career as a Jewish educator, commemorated the anniversary with a ceremony in the local Jewish community.
The ceremony was also attended by Holocaust survivors and witnesses from Israel, the Czech Republic and Austria who knew Hirsch personally.
Present was Fredy Hirsch’s niece Rachel Masel, who was born in Bolivia, where Alfred’s older brother Paul fled from the Nazis, and who lives today in Kiryat Ono, near Tel Aviv.
On Friday, Hirsch was also honored in his Aachen high school which, in a ceremony attended by North-Rhine Westphalia State Education Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sylvia Löhrmann inaugurated a forum named after him. This ceremony evolved from an initiative of students and teachers at the school who, led by Peter Johannes Droste, established a working group to research Hirsch’s life.
Before World War II, Hirsch worked as an educator for various Jewish youth organizations and Jewish sport associations such as the German Jewish scout association, Maccabi and Maccabi Hatza’ir.
After living in Germany, Hirsch, in September 1935, fled to Czechoslovakia.
In 1939, the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia and banned Jewish children there from schools, clubs and public places.
In this situation Hirsch organized educational activities, camps and sport events that were the last and only places left for Jewish children to go to. “He was a brilliant organizer and he gave us confidence,” recalls Evelina Merowa, an Auschwitz survivor who regularly attended the activities organized by Hirsch at the Hagibor sports compound in Prague.
Hirsch also participated in the operations that facilitated the emigration of Jewish children to Mandatory Palestine.
Like most Jews in Prague, Hirsch, too, was deported to the Terezin/Theresienstadt concentration camp. There he was part of the camp administration, which provided him with certain privileges, allowing him to continue his educational activities and to save the lives of many children by getting them off the regular transports from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz.
In the summer of 1943, Hirsch dared to talk to a group of children from Bialystok who passed through Theresienstadt on the way to one of the extermination camps, thereby violating the SS prohibition on making contact with them. As a punishment for this disobedience, Hirsch was sent to Auschwitz.
When he arrived he did the unthinkable: He personally spoke to Josef Mengele and obtained his permission to establish the children blocks, where he continued to educate and care for youngsters for whom he organized live-saving privileges such as slightly bigger food rations.
There are various theories about Hirsch’s death, none of which is fully confirmed.
His niece Rachel Masel is critical of the lack of awareness of her uncle’s heroic deeds. She suggested to the Maccabi sports association that Hirsch, who was an enthusiastic athlete and gym teacher, should be commemorated at the Maccabiah Games for which, according to her information, he prepared 1,400 children.
“I don’t know whether the Maccabi association ignored my request or whether the letter got lost in the Israeli mail,” Masel said with a tone of sarcasm.
Historian Dirk Kämper, who recently published a biography of Hirsch, believes that his legacy has been marginalized, among other reasons, due to the educator’s homosexuality.
“Fredy Hirsch established a fascinating example for humanity and solidarity under unthinkable circumstances,” said Alexander Lohe, a representative of the Aachen mayor’s office and major initiator of the municipality’s efforts to preserve the memory of Hirsch.
Aachen’s mayor Marcel Philipp honored Hirsch as “even though not one of its most widely known, certainly one of the most important sons of our city.” He also thanked Bettina Offergeld from the project for the commemoration of Shoah victims from Aachen that organized the visit of the witnesses.
Robert Neugröschel, chairman of Aachen’s Jewish community, is full of praise for the municipality’s efforts. But he specially pointed out the project at Hirsch’s former high school.
“Fredy Hirsch was a true hero and it is especially important that his legacy is conveyed to young people in order to teach what it means to be courageous, but also in order to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and to establish a sign against anti-Semitism,” Neugröschel said.