Heroes don’t always wear capes, or are dressed in uniforms, sometimes they are just ordinary people. I say ordinary but more often than not they are anything but ordinary, as was the case with Fredy Hirsch.
I first heard of Fredy a few years ago. I got the book, The Librarian of Auschwitz, as a birthday gift. Although it is based on the story of Dita Kraus, Fredy features prominently in the book.
Alfred Hirsch, known as Fredy, was born in Aachen, Germany on 11 February 1916. In Aachen, he began his career as a teacher and educator in various Jewish youth organizations. An enthusiastic and talented athlete, Fredy also
worked with Jewish sports associations. After the Nazis came to power in Germany, he fled to Czechoslovakia, where he believed he would be safe.
In October 1939, after having moved to Prague, Hirsch helped a group of kids he had been working with go to Denmark for pre-aliyah training(Pronounced: a-LEE-yuh for synagogue use, ah-lee-YAH for immigration to Israel, Origin: Hebrew, literally, “to go up.” This can mean the honour of saying a blessing before and after the Torah reading during a worship service, or immigrating to Israel). They later went to Israel.
Following the Nazi conquest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, strict restrictions were placed on the country’s Jews. Despite this, Hirsch continued his work with children, organizing sports activities, camping trips and study groups.
When he was deported to Theresienstadt in December 1941, Fredy organized activities for the children there. He set up games, including soccer and track and field events, in the grassy areas of the camp.
Fredy was described as athletic, attractive, and extremely caring. He made sure that the children kept themselves as clean as possible despite the lack of hot water and soap, even running cleanliness competitions.
Survivors remember him as a kind and reassuring presence to the children.
“Every group had a counsellor, and above all the counsellors—was Fredy. Fredy was admired by everyone” Dita Kraus, Auschwitz survivor who knew Hirsch from Prague and Theresienstadt.
Fredy Hirsch arrived in Terezín on 4 December 1941 as part of a team called the Aufbaukommando II, consisting of Hirsch and 22 other employees of the Jewish community who had been given the task of organising life in the newly-created ghetto. From the start of the ghetto’s existence, special rooms were created for children, who lived apart from their parents. Later they were transformed into the heims [homes] around 11 children’s houses where several carers and teachers devoted themselves to the children’s semi-legal education. Fredy Hirsch, Egon Redlich and Bedřich Prager were in charge of looking after the young people. Hirsch and the other carers tried to improve the living conditions of the children in the ghetto in whatever way they could. Hirsch insisted that the children must exercise every day and pay attention to personal hygiene to maintain their psychological and physical condition, for in this lay their only hope of survival. The fact that Hirsch came from Germany, and his self-confident manner, meant that some SS members had a certain degree of respect for him. He thus managed to gain space for a playground, where in May 1943, the Terezín Maccabi Games took place.
The Maccabiah Games (a.k.a. the World Maccabiah Games; Hebrew: משחקי המכביה, or משחקי המכביה העולמית; sometimes referred to as the Jewish Olympics), was first held in 1932, are an international Jewish and Israeli multi-sport event held quadrennially in Israel.
Fredy Hirsch also gained the ability to have individuals taken off the planned transports to the east, and often made use of this to benefit children. When a group of 1,200 children from the recently liquidated Bialystok ghetto arrived in August 1943, Hirsch went to see them in defiance of German orders to stay away. He was caught and his connections did not prevent him from being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in transport along with 5,006 other people before the visit of representatives from the International Red Cross.
Unlike most arrivals to Auschwitz, Hirsch’s group did not have to go through the selection process and was instead moved to a newly built family camp. (BIIb)
They also did not have to wear uniforms or have their heads shaved. Men and women were allowed to interact and the group was allowed to receive packages from relatives. Hirsch took responsibility for the 274 children under 14 years of age from his transport, and another 353 who came later.
The children slept with their mothers, fathers or counsellors and during the day, were brought to a building Hirsch convinced the SS to set aside for them. The children’s block was under the supervision of Josef Mengele.
Hirsch once again organized classes, scout activities, plays and physical fitness courses. Two artists drew cheerful pictures that were put on the walls. He forbade counsellors from talking about the gas chambers and crematoria and his insistence on maintaining hygiene was critical to the survival of children, especially as adults began to die from the disease. Hirsch again made friends with guards who allowed the children to receive better food and to stay indoors for twice-daily roll calls.
Children in the block had secret, improvised lessons, taught in small groups according to age. If an SS patrol was approaching, the lessons quickly turned into games, or the children started to sing German songs, which were allowed. For the carers, too, working in the children’s block had a certain advantage: an intellectual environment, and under a roof too, which made it easier for them to keep themselves in relatively good psychological and physical condition. The teachers would tell the children the content of books that they remembered. They taught them geography and history, played games with them, and sang with them. In late 1943 and early 1944, the children also rehearsed and performed a production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was attended by SS men, including Dr Mengele, who applauded the children enthusiastically, had them sit on his knee and asked them to call him Uncle.
As the September transport neared the end of its six-month quarantine period towards the end of February 1944, members of the camp’s resistance movement contacted Fredy Hirsch. They knew that the word Sonderbehandlung, written on the identity card of each prisoner in the family camp, actually meant death in the gas chamber. In Fredy Hirsch, who enjoyed natural authority among the prisoners, they saw a potential leader of the planned uprising. Hirsch found himself facing a difficult decision: a rebellion would mean the chance to kill several SS men and a slim chance of possible escape for a handful of prisoners, but also certain death for the great majority of prisoners in the family camp, and without a doubt, certain death for all the children. On the morning of 8 March, he discussed the issue again with Rudolf Vrba, who was connected to the Auschwitz resistance movement. Vrba visited him and told him there was no doubt that the whole transport was heading for the gas chambers. Hirsch asked for an hour to decide. An hour later, Vrba found him unconscious. A doctor stated that he had taken an overdose of tranquillizers. That evening, Fredy Hirsch’s body was burned in the Birkenau crematorium, together with the remains of the 3,792 murdered prisoners of the Terezín family camp.
There is still speculation as to what happened in the final minutes of his life. It is not entirely clear how he managed to obtain a fatal dose of medicine, nor whether it was truly suicide. Before his death, Hirsch appointed his successors as the heads of the children’s block—Seppl Lichtenstern and Jan Brammer.
In Rubi Gat’s 2017 documentary, Dear Fredy, the subject of Hirsch’s sexuality comes up as early as the film’s first two minutes, in an animated segment in which we are told, “Hirsch couldn’t fall in love. That was the gossip in the ghetto.” And it is raised again in questions asked of the interviewees. In an interview by Dr Michal Aharony, Gat, who is himself gay, and lives with his partner and their three children, was asked why he put such an emphasis on Hirsch’s sexual orientation. “It’s part of who he was,” Gat said. “I tried to tell his story without omissions or prettifying things. He didn’t hide it, so I’m certainly not going to hide it.”
Indeed, it was well-known in Prague that Hirsch was gay. Nor did he hide it at Theresienstadt, Terezin in Czechoslovakia, or Auschwitz. “We’d heard that Fredy was gay,” Kraus told me in an interview, “but we didn’t care about that at all. It wasn’t an issue anywhere.”
Unfortunately, it was an issue in the city of Harish in Israel.
They had set a location and date, Thursday, 26 January, the evening before the start of International Holocaust Remembrance Day—and Gat had even approved promotional materials for the event.
Suddenly, ten days before the event, the head of Harish’s youth services called Gat and told him they had to call off the event. During the call, which Gat recorded, she told him that it was because of a fuss within the municipality, that there had been “explosions” between different officials in city hall. She explained that the cancellation of his screening was part of a broad cancellation of LGBTQ-focused events in the city due to opposition from Haredi leaders. “There’s a crisis about the [LGBTQ] program in general because we’re a mixed city and it’s a new program and a new city,” she told Gat, referring to the secular and religious communities that share the city.