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FINDING FREDY HIRSCH

when the Hollywood animator Dina Babbitt died in Felton, California, obituaries in the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times both memorialized her as one of the talented creators of Warner Brothers’ cartoons and many commercial characters. But most stories about Babbitt focused on her fight to win back some of the artwork she created as a prisoner in Auschwitz. One chilling sentence in her obituary describes how, as a teenager, Dina Gottleibova (Babbitt), painted scenes from the fairy tale Snow White on the internal walls of one the children’s barracks in the concentration camp. But there is no mention of how or why she did that; and no mention at all of Fredy Hirsch, the young prisoner who recruited the team of teenaged artists in Auschwitz and somehow convinced the Nazis to give them paint, brushes, and the canvas of a blank wall. Dina Gottleibova Babbitt’s obituary illuminates the space where Fredy is missing; he should be right there, making that story makes sense. He should be a part of history, but so far, he’s really not. As elderly survivors die off, shreds of Holocaust history disappear with them. Small hints sometimes point to Fredy Hirsch, but he is almost never mentioned. The recent re-release of the epic Holocaust documentary Shoah offers a glimpse; Czech survivor Rudolf Vrba does mention Fredy Hirsch, but only briefly. For more than forty years, Fredy Hirsch was doomed to obscurity by a confluence of fates: no one in Communist-dominated Czechoslovakia could risk their own well-being by suggesting a monument to a gay, Jewish hero who killed himself in Auschwitz. n as a freelance journalist, I came home with Fredy Hirsch’s story in my suitcase in 1993, blazing with ambition to get his story told. It is safe to say that anyone who knows me well knows about Fredy. I’ve talked about
AFTER THREE YEARS IN PRAGUE

N 2009,

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him, written about him, thought about him. I never forget about him. But Holocaust stories are hard to sell, even if you have the time. So I’ve focused, instead, on the stories of the day as a reporter. Which is to say, on balance, I have been largely ineffectual in telling Fredy Hirsch’s story. As a result, his memory is safe, and sacred, but still entirely obscure, for no good reason. For survivors who remember him, even owe him, Fredy Hirsch’s homosexuality seems like a riddle with no answer. Weighted by competing worries, they wondered about telling his story: talk about him honestly and risk discrediting him. Don’t talk at all, he’s lost. The survivors who told me about Fredy were mostly in their seventies and eighties, and they knew their choice was definitive: now, or never. n October evening in 1991, hundreds of elderly Jews crowded into the pink wedding cake of a building that is Prague’s Jewish Town Hall. They’d come to see a movie starring themselves: survivors of Terezín, or the Theresienstadt concentration camp. They’d been granted permission under thawing communist rule in 1989 to talk to filmmakers; now, they could even see the film. No one who came to the screening of Terezín Diary expected surprises; only maybe to see some forgotten but familiar faces and hear the stories of other survivors Every grandmother in the room reached for who’d emigrated. Most people a handkerchief or her husband’s wrinkled in the audience had reported to hand, and gasped: “Fredy!” this building fifty years earlier, to turn over possessions, or learn the particulars about transport to the concentration camps. Watching themselves and their friends retelling their stories, everyone in the room was silent, until Yehuda Bakon, a Czech-Israeli, started talking about Fredy Hirsch. When he said Fredy’s name, the camera focused on a still photo of Fredy, head thrown back, laughing, dark and handsome as a movie star. Every grandmother in the room reached for a handkerchief or her husband’s wrinkled hand, and gasped: “Fredy!” In 1991, by the time McDonald’s and American Express were moving into Wenceslas Square, the idea of Fredy Hirsch must have seemed real again, or as surreal as the scenes from fairy tales he
ON A CHILLY

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encouraged children to paint on the interior walls of the barracks of Auschwitz-Birkenau. n to Central Europe in 1991 with a laptop in my backpack, a string to the Boston Globe, and the vague idea that everything I was reading about the former Eastern bloc’s new romance with democracy and capitalism was entirely too romantic. Prague held no special allure for me, and I figured I’d end up in Poland. But the first story I wrote for the Boston Globe was about Terezín, which I described this way: “The narrow streets of this small town less than thirty miles from the German border hum with the simple errands of daily life; teenagers and soldiers line up for ice cream, shoppers cross paths in the town square. There are few clues that more than 33,430 Jews died in this Czech town turned Nazi transport camp, or that another 83,000 people were sent from here to gas chambers at Auschwitz, Birkenau or Maidanek. Only the fading numbers D11 12-6-8 painted on a building on the corner of Dlouha and Rinja street offer cryptic evidence of the town’s warped history—the cell and block numbers assigned with Nazi precision.” After writing that story, I stayed in Terezín for three months, because no one there spoke much English, and the new museum’s administrators were desperate for help as they prepared for the first-ever international conference of Terezín scholars and survivors in Terezín. I lived in an official-looking building on the town square that, since the war, had been a socialist police museum. During the war, it was a barracks for boys. I slept in a spare ground-floor room with high ceilings and chalky white walls. It was not at all a bedroom, it was a room with a bed, but I slept well. I knew that during the war, when Terezín was Theresienstadt, this building was L417, the place where Fredy Hirsch ran a sort of clandestine day camp for two years before being sent to Auschwitz. It’s really time, more than place, that defines a place. That’s what I learned living in Terezín. Life here hardly seemed marked by what had happened, right here. In fact, life here wasn’t interesting at all.
I’D GONE

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Each morning I’d bundle up to walk the cold gray mile or so along Highway D40 to the Terezín Memorial offices just outside of town. The official Terezín Memorial consists of the town itself, the museum building on the square, the crematorium and cemetery on the edge of town, and on the other side of town, the Small Fortress. The Hapsburgs built the town, and the fortress where the Nazi commandant maintained the ghetto prison and offices. Now, the Memorial operates out of the same offices the Nazis used. It was hard not to think about that, especially when my colleagues were bantering, The most absurd confection to a Holocaust making office jokes, doing all survivor is an American girl. From the the banal stuff people do when untouched land of plenty, yours is a life of not on task at their desks. happy endings and safe places. At about 4:30 every afternoon, when it started to get dark, I’d walk back to my room in the town, stopping at the small shop store on the square to pick up something for dinner. I had one colleague who spoke English, but she took the bus home to another village about two miles away where she lived with her family. So I spent every night in my room, reading, and wondering how this place could exist, simultaneously, on the same planet with the sunny beach town in Southern California where I grew up. In December 1991, I left Terezín and moved to Prague. Everything was a story, everything was cheap, and it felt sweetly subversive to make a life for myself among people I would never have met if not for some tricks of history. I found plenty of work writing about the economy and changes in the film and television industry, so I stayed. I also continued working on small projects for the Terezín Ghetto Museum. And I made a deal with myself that I would find out whatever there was to know about Fredy Hirsch. n confection to a Holocaust survivor is an American girl. From the untouched land of plenty, yours is a life of happy endings and safe places. Your provenance is the psychic antipode of wartime anyplace. So you are lucky, and damned; you don’t understand, and, you can’t. But because you are an American, asking questions seems like
THE MOST ABSURD

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natural law. And because you are a woman (they’ll say ‘girl’ until you are 50) you have the freedom to spend your time on stories. When it becomes obvious that the only chance for a story’s survival is to try to explain it to an American girl, a survivor will gamble, and talk. First, they’ll interview you, and fight you, and insult you. You won’t get it right, you can’t possibly. You are too young, too poisoned by the Disneylandification of life, too determined to conjure up hopeful endings. Nothing qualifies you for this work. Credentialism is useless. Then, just past all of those admonitions and all of that leftover anger, they’ll beg you. They’ll talk for hours and send letters and pictures and sketches, in hopes that something sweet and strange and lost can be recovered. The Czech historian Toman Brod introduced me to this technique during an hours-long interview over the kitchen table in his apartment near Prague’s Old Town Square. By then he already knew me quite well. I’d been living in Prague for more than a year. To help me make a pamphlet for tourists who made the trip to Terezín, he’d spent hours telling me his own story about teenage life in Terezín and Auschwitz, and the work camp in Gross Rosen, and how he was liberated while lying in a Polish hospital. As a thirteen year old in Terezín, Brod lived in the boy’s barracks, L417, in the parallel universe created by Fredy Hirsch. Brod agreed to this interview about Fredy, but he was so cagey and vague, that I finally asked if maybe he wasn’t wasting my time. And then I could see I’d called his bluff. A handsome and tough old guy with a mane of white hair, Brod looked past me with watery eyes. “No, no. Really. It is important to write about this person. Because he was singular. He was the only one. And if somebody has to not be forgotten, it is Fredy.” Brod didn’t tell me Fredy was gay. I already knew that. Milena Jelinek, a Czech-American filmmaker living in Prague whose husband had been in the camps had told me. So when Brod said that Fredy was “special,” I pressed him a little. Was he? Brod looked into his coffee cup and confronted his own euphemism. “I don’t know why you have to hide this side of his personality. Not to underline it, but you can mention it. But never, never, did it influence his activity with the children. For me he was something of a god and I admired him.”

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n between all survivors and the world: do not forsake me. Do not forget us, but moreover, do not forget what we have seen. Today their chant is harder to hear; and it’s more like: we are dying, but you, you must never forget. For decades, Steven Spielberg’s Shoah project kept the video cameras whirring. The truest document the world will have is tapes of the survivors telling their own stories. His archive project will preserve thousands of survivors tales. The talking heads will lisp and bark across the years, the bits and lasers beaming the stories in to classrooms and Jewish community centers and churches around the world. Some survivor stories are specific, some vague, some worn by time until they are thin and perhaps far from accurate. Each survivor, is, of course, an accident. Many feel guilty because they beat the odds, others feel entitled. It doesn’t matter much, except for specificity. And each story will, by definition, bury a thousand more that go untold, because no one lived to recall it, because there was no way to collect every fragment and make it whole, or give it the shape of a story or a life: beginning, middle, end. But for survivors who know mostly their own stories and just bits of stories of people they lost and even loved, trust is the only option. For the Czech survivors who had hunkered down under Communism or gone on to build new lives in Israel, America, Canada or Australia, the memory of Each survivor, is, of course, an accident. Fredy Hirsh was sort of a talisMany feel guilty because they beat man; like a coin tucked in the the odds, others feel entitled. seam for good luck, checked occasionally with a thumb, never inspected in harsh light. Over the decades, it seems, each survivor had fingered the Roman features on that coin, knowing that as Fredy Hirsch had secured their lives, his destiny was their responsibility. That afternoon Brod gave me the names of other people to talk to, and I found them, and they gave me more names. I went to Germany and Israel and kept looking for pieces of the story of Fredy Hirsch. I heard some of Fredy’s story in living rooms, some in kibbutz cafeterias; some of it I found in archives. I collected bits from the movie Shoah, and from the memories of very old people. Some came
THERE IS A TENSION

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in letters written by shaky hands. Some letters came from Florida, some from Jerusalem, some by e-mail. Some people lectured and hectored me in their offices, some travelled great distances to meet with me, others slammed down the phone on me. When I was convinced I had every existing piece of paper written on, by or about Fredy, and that I had contacted every person who might be helpful, I shoved the pieces of this story into a drawer and worried about it every day. I got busy with my job, telling other stories.
FROM 1994–2003,

n

I was a reporter at Chicago Public Radio. I covered the public schools and the environment. Hanging above my desk for nine years, I kept a playful hand-drawn notecard from Willy Groag, a Czech-Israeli who I’d interviewed about working with Fredy as a sports instructor during the war: “How’s the research coming?” At home next to my toothpaste in the bathroom cabinet I left an old note to myself—a reminder to meet someone for lunch to talk about Fredy. There is always a picture of Fredy on my desk at home, often nearly lost in the shuffle of papers. Sometimes when I see him there, I say, “I know. I promised.” I’m talking to everyone who told me his story, not just him. Sometimes I say it out loud. He has been with me a little over twenty years now. I have known my husband half as long as I have known about Fredy; my kids are now nine and seven, they are just starting to understand what my Fredy binders are about, the bits of conversation, the realms of adulthood where he lives. As remembered by those who wanted him remembered, this is the story of Fredy Hirsch. n
IN LATE 1943 ,

Barrack 31 in Auschwitz-Birkenau was converted by Fredy Hirsch from a horse barn into a day camp. Under his supervision, dozens of Czech children worked together white-washing the walls and painting over them—scenes from Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood, including even a little witch’s hut. On the posts meant to tether horses, he hung small sculptures made from tins, little Greek and Roman Diskobolos and other fig-

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ures. Czech folk songs, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Frere Jacques could be heard here. The music came from Fredy’s recorder, often accompanied by his lover. In this playhouse about 100 meters from the gas chambers, there was even a small library, where, of course, every book was contraband. There were chairs and a table fashioned out of up-ended boxes. The very proper tableau was a taunt, perhaps. In Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen describes ordinary Germans zealously killing Jews. That’s his whole point, basically. The genocide was a popular movement. The Resistance, likewise, was a movement, thought less popular. Some Jews and righteous Christians hid and balked and refused to kill or be killed. But Fredy Hirsch didn’t He acknowledged Auschwitz, and Terezín play that endgame. And that and Nazi-dominated Prague. He lived may be why he is remembered in each of those places and systematically in a way that makes people attempted to abolish them, daily, in gasp. He acknowledged Austiny ways. chwitz, and Terezín and Nazidominated Prague. He lived in each of those places and systematically attempted to abolish them, daily, in tiny ways. What Fredy Hirsch created at Auschwitz was really a footnote to the worlds he created in Terezín and war-time Prague. Auschwitz was a six-month sentence appended on to the two and a half years he spent organizing children’s activities in the Czech transport camp, and the four years he spent prior to that in Prague and Brno, as a sports instructor for Jewish children banned from public schools and local parks. Fredy Hirsch came to the concentration camps the same way every Jew got there—on a train. What is not the same is how this twenty-something German wound up in a Czech camp and became a hero among Czech Jews, exploiting his Germanness at every turn. n was born on February 11, 1916 in Aachen, Germany, an affluent southern city near the borders of both The Netherlands and France. His parents Olga and Heinrich were well-off and assimilated. Photos of young Fredy and his brother Paul show them beautifully dressed, accompanied by their mother. The family lived in a comfortable home near the Kaiserplatz,
ALFRED HIRSCH

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and the children attended a Jewish day school. Their father died when the boys were quite young. Olga soon remarried, but Fredy never got along with his stepfather. After graduating from the Hinderberg Hochschule, the Jewish high school in town, Fredy Hirsch left Aachen and went to Frankfurt. There he led groups of boys in the Judische Pfadfinder—a sort of Jewish Boy Scouting organization. He lived in the home of Emma and Julius Cohen, on the Kettenhoferweg. In 1935, he left for Prague. n In the mid 1930s, every afternoon the playing fields of Slaná on the outskirts of Prague, near the leafy cemetery where Kafka is buried, were filled with kids playing soccer and practicing gymnastics. Prague’s chapter of Maccabi, the international Jewish sporting league, practiced here. An extraordinary athlete, Fredy Hirsch spent much of every day on these fields, leading kids in games and drills and gymnastics. Each afternoon, there were dozens of children on the lawns, playing soccer, running, practicing calisthenics under Fredy’s direction. Before long, Fredy was dispatched to Brno, in eastern Moravia, to develop similar sorts of programs. In 1936, he shared an apartment in Brno with two other Jewish youth leaders, Menachem Gilad and Lev Groag. Fredy’s nickname was Ze’ev, earning the troika the joint nickname of ZeMeLe. They lived there for ten months. After the war, Gilad lived on the Kfar Rupin Kibbutz in Israel. Lev Groag’s brother, Willi, had emigrated to Israel. I’d never been to Israel before because the idea didn’t appeal to me much. Why should all the Jews go live together in one country? It hardly seemed like a response to the Holocaust that challenged hate. After living in Prague, where World War II resonated in almost every facet of daily life in the 1990s, Israel made more sense to me. Also, I realized I needed to go. Most of the people I’d talked to about Fredy in Prague were children when they knew him, and I wanted to find his peers, people who might know more. Like Willi Groag and Menachem Gilad. Gilad enthusiastically went to some trouble to meet me while he was in Tel Aviv for an agricultural trade show. According to Gilad, Fredy never got a letter from home, or talked about his past.

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After the stint in Brno, Fredy moved back to Prague in 1937, devoting himself to setting up teams and leagues and matches, giving lessons and coordinating dozens of activities for Jewish children whose lives were increasingly constrained by the Nazi rules in the Reichsprotektorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Forbidden to go to school, play in most public parks, even take public transportation, Czech Jewish children were losing touch with their studies, their friends, their childhoods. Now the fields Fredy presided over assumed an even greater significance for the Jewish children. This was the only place they were allowed to play. Life was becoming unbearable for Jews in Prague in 1939 and 1940. Hundreds of families emigrated, hundreds more were trying. n ‘Apollo with a mauritzkauf’—Apollo with a Jewish head,” Willi Groag told me. When I met Groag at Kibbutz Ma’anit in1993, he’d just retired as the chairman of the board of his kibbutz’s starch factory, at 79. With a twinkle in his eye and his feet in clogs, Groag stood about five foot five. Like his parents, well known among the Terezín artists, Willi drew and painted all his life. Groag was 25 years old in 1939 when he and Fredy shared an apartment in Prague on Na Zderce, a crooked, cobbled street running along the embankment of the Vlatava. It was a busy and chaotic year. The whole time he and Fredy lived together, Groag says they never had more than two sentences of real conversation. But he recalled that summer as “the time of Fredy the great hero.” Hundreds of children attended his camp; he was in charge, and adored. They called him ‘Apollo with a mauritzkauf’ Gorag was also a youth organ—Apollo with a Jewish head izer, but more focused on preparing teenagers for aliyah—a move to Palestine. To be sure, Fredy Hirsch was the kind of bachelor who didn’t need to cook much. He wore his thick dark hair slicked back, was always tan and impeccably fit. Many nights he had invitations to more than one family’s home for dinner, and he was known to eat two suppers backto-back.
“THEY CALLED HIM

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At the end of a long, fun, intimate interview in his office, I asked Groag how good a friend he was of Fredy’s. Suddenly he seemed uncomfortable. Stumped even. I just sat there, waiting, refraining from feeding him words that might help because I couldn’t tell what was going through his mind. Maybe he was listening back to what he’d told me over the long afternoon, or reviewing the movie in his head. He sat back in his low chair. Silence. Finally he looked up, looked over at me and said, “The fact is I don’t know really too much about Fredy. I’m not sure Fredy had any friends.” n may have revealed himself the most in Zidovsky Listy, Prague’s Czech- and German-language newspaper. Hirsch wrote several columns for the paper in 1940 and 41 using the pen name FreHi. He was downright evangelical on the topic of Zionism, and obliquely autobiographical. My friend, Arno Parik, scholar of Czech Judaic and longtime curator the Jewish Museum in Prague, and his colleague the late historian Alena Frankova, helped me find stories Fredy wrote in the thick, bound volumes of the newspaper. Some of his contemporaries told me Hirsch was an ardent Zionist in Prague and Brno; others say that, like them, he was an accidental Zionist. Either way, on November 24, 1941 Fredy Hirsh was sent to Terezín with the Aufbaukomando II. He was among two groups of young men sent ahead to help construct the camp. He wore transport number 387.
FREDY HIRSCH

n the Eger River in a flat and comparatively unremarkable part of the Czech landscape in the northwest part of the country. Prague is just an hour and half south, Dresden about a two hour drive west. The town was constructed during the late 1700s as a Hapsburg outpost, but was never used. Instead, this small walled village laid out on a grid became a Czechoslovak
TEREZÍN STRADDLES

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military town; and for the Nazi’s purposes, it was ideal. Mustardbrown buildings are arranged at right angles around a plain town square. In Terezín, you can look down each street and see straight to the corner, and beyond to the next corner, and the wall. Like most concentration camps, prisoners here lived in barracks, with bunks stacked in towers of three. Men stayed in one building, women in another. Children were also separated by gender, living in barracks without their parents. It was a tiny town, and at the height of the ghetto’s population, 30,000 people were crammed into the buildings and streets. The normal population for the town was about 2,000. Terezín has hardly been forgotTerezín was the holding pen where hundreds ten. Among Holocaust scholars of gifted Czech, German, and Austrian it is, in fact, quite famous for its composers, painters, writers and thinkers bizarre, flourishing cultural life. created—under the watchful eye of the Terezín was the holding pen Nazi commandant. where hundreds of gifted Czech, German, and Austrian composers, painters, writers and thinkers created—under the watchful eye of the Nazi commandant. The Nazis maintained this schizophrenic culture to convince the world that nothing sinister was happening to the Jews of Eastern Europe. Much has been written about the delegations of Red Cross observers who took carefully guided tours of this camp, and, indeed, observed Jews engaging in the arts; a café featured the live music of the Ghetto Swingers ensemble, painters and sculptors worked in ateliers under the eaves of the barracks. Among the Terezín artifacts that survived the war are sketches and paintings and reels of footage created by and “starring” Terezín prisoners, used as propaganda to show the world just how okay everything was for the Jews. Life in Terezín was theoretically governed by the Juden Altestenrat, a Council of Jewish Elders sanctioned by the Nazis. Mostly they made decisions about who “went East,” the euphemism for transport to the death camps in Poland. Delegating these chores to the Jews made life easier for the Nazis running the camp. Initially, Fredy Hirsch ran his half day camp/half school to keep the children quietly occupied. For the first several months in the Terezín Ghetto, some civilian Czechs were still living in the town and the Nazis did not want them to be aware of exactly what was going on.

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Life in Terezín was terrible and surreal. Yet many who were children or young teens in Terezín remember it as somehow fun, or at least intense. They recall soccer matches and musicals (Brundibar), underground newspapers (Vedem), scouting activities, special contests and daily inspections. Thirty-four thousand people died of starvation and disease in Terezín, and everyone, including the children, saw bodies being removed on bread cards and delivered to the crematorium. But Fredy kept the games going. Standing high on a parapet of this walled ghetto looking over the impromptu soccer fields with a pitch pipe, Fredy Hirsch officiated at the Sunday soccer matches and gymnastics competitions. He orchestrated most of those activities, somehow convincing the SS to allow it, sometimes “paying” for these privileges by having the children perform for the Nazis. For the children, it was an escape, but the day camp may have served a second purpose. A brilliant propaganda tool, the Nazis loved to show it off, and this may have bought some prisoners time and saved some lives. Fredy even wrote a three-page report for Adolf Eichmann, explaining his model program for children. “The biggest challenge is working with kids from such different backgrounds….Everyone has to adjust to living in a community, and a Jewish community. After this first year we’ve really asked ourselves what we’ve accomplished for the children, and to maintain what is precious and good. We wanted to create for the youth a home, a place to be taken seriously, where they could be young without any disturbance, but where they would be exposed to the questions of the day. We wanted to create for them, in the midst of the piling sorrow, a relatively beautiful home. “The building of bed, the creation of wardrobes for clothing, the cabinets for food and the decoration of the rooms was not unimportant; we considered it way to express dreams, ingenuity and creativity for the young people who were living there. “At the end, in the world, Jews will be judged by the behavior of our youth. According to their work, the work of the Jewish people will be judged. According to their discipline, the discipline of the Jews. There is no sacrifice too great to see to it that our youth are as capable and fine as we can help make them. “In spite of missing many healthy foods, I believe exercise is

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necessary. Here it is not only important to preserve the physiological demands, but more. When two thousand young people arrive at your stadium, it is a contest to see who can perform. For the participants and spectators alike, it awakens the good inside.” n of the Council of Elders, Hirsch left himself open to criticism that he was cooperating with the Nazis. He was more accurately co-opting them—using his Germanness and his native command of German get what he wanted. And he broke the rules. Fredy met every transport to make sure that sick children were taken immediately to the camp’s medical wards. That is how Zuzana Ruzickova remembers meeting Fredy Hirsch. In January of 1941, she’d been transported from her hometown of Pilsen and arrived in Terzin quite ill. She was 12 years old. Fredy took her to the infirmary. He frequently checked on her, and like dozens of other teenaged girls, she developed a huge crush on him. When she got better, she says she followed him around the Jewish ghetto like a puppy. For decades Ruzickova has been one of the Czech Republic’s most renowned interpreters of Bach. Two grand pianos rub shoulders in her modest living room. Dozens of her recordings are considered among the finest exemplars of the classical canon. “Many of the children he took care of could tell you he saved our lives,” says Ruzickova. “But he also saved our souls. If we came out more or less intact, me, for instance, to be an artist, it was because of that—because he understood that.” She remembers participating in Fredy’s staging of Geremia, the Viennese composer Stefan Zweig’s opera. But Ruzickova’s father got sick, and died, in Terezín. She lost track of Fredy. The next time they met up was in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
LIKE MEMBERS

n has been written, no one is exactly sure what took place on August 24, 1943, when a trainload of children from the Bialystok Ghetto arrived in Terezín. As was his habit, Fredy Hirsch tried to meet that train, but wound up in the Ghetto prison for his troubles.
ALTHOUGH MUCH

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The children were apparently too sick and filthy to fulfill their role as pawns in an exchange the Nazis had brokered to recover some prisoners of war. Instead, the children were sent to barracks at the far end of the Terezín ghetto. Fredy tried to get there. He may have sealed a fate with that errand; within a few days it was announced that 5,000 Terezín prisoners, including Fredy, would be sent to a family camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The trains left Terezín less than three weeks later, on September 7. n A Terezín family camp known as B2B was established in AuschwitzBirkenau especially for these two transports of 5,000 people. Unlike all of the other prisoners, most of whom were gassed shortly after arrival, the Terezín prisoners in the so-called Family Camp kept their own clothes, and their hair, and remained segregated from the rest of the camp. Zuzana Ruzickova arrived at Auschwitz sometime in December, 1943. “As it happened, we came in from the sauna where we were tattooed and everything, and I met a group of men, one of whom was Fredy. He looked at me very sadly and said, ‘Oh, you’re here, too. Come see me.’ “He didn’t look so different. But he looked much older. That was the only difference. His eyes.” Ruzickova had an aunt in Auschwitz who was a soup carrier. Ruzickova borrowed her aunt’s coat, and her special badge, and went in search of Fredy. She found him in Barracks 31. “I must tell you that Auschwitz was one great sludge of mud, of dirtiness, of hopelessness,” says Ruzickova. “Even the skies were never blue. And now I came in to the Barracks 31, and there was a different world.” All Auschwitz was one great sludge of mud, around her scenes from Little Red of dirtiness, of hopelessness…even the skies Riding Hood were painted on were never blue. the walls. “So what if it was kitsch?” says Ruzickova. “He understood that it’s not everything to get the children extra soup…or to make sure the barracks were heated. He had to give the children some beauty.” Ruzickova says when she knocked on the door of the little witch’s hut, Fredy appeared and invited her in. By now she was fourteen years old—too old to be considered a child and therefore

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not eligible to be a part of the day camp, but still too young to be a “teacher.” Fredy was trying to figure out how to include her when an SS soldier kicked in the door, walked into the room and took a seat on the table. Without missing a beat, Fredy looked up and said, “Wo haben Sie heute gestohlen und gemordet? (So, where did you do your stealing and murdering today?)” Ruzickova says the soldier made a move for his holster. She froze. “I thought he would shoot him on the spot. But then he just laughed and said, “Hey, when are you going to put on a play for us?” “This showed the stature Fredy had in the camp,” says Ruzickova. “He was a German, he was pleasant and intelligent, and the SS men were bored. So they were really willing to accept him on special footing. On the other hand, he was a Jew and a prisoner, and I had seen him many times bloodied by the SS. So he was living on the edge,” says Ruszickova, “being accepted by the Germans, but, only so far.” It was enough so that in this children’s barracks Fredy as able to “publish” a daily handwritten newspaper. And the children competed fiercely in weekly contests he sponsored, trying to out-do each other by writing the best poem, drawing a better picture and perhaps most bizarrely, doing the most good deeds. In Auschwitz. Fredy Hirsch was living in his own moral climate, says Ruzickova. “Clinging to these values in this absolute dissolution. And still insisting, Decency. Decency. Decency.” It meant everything to Fredy Hirsch to be a mensch, but that credo also imposed a burden. Fredy Hirsch had lovers in Auschwitz, Ruzickova says, but he also tried to commit suicide more than once. “Imagine this man with these very bourgeois and rigid values being a homosexual in this time when it was so despised and laughed at. He wanted to get rid of himself.” Fredy gave up his Zionism in Auschwitz, according to Ruzickova. “He told me, ‘Remember when I was an ardent Zionist? I have changed my mind entirely. Because I look at all those people outside and I really can’t distinguish between a Zionist, a Communist and a democrat. We are all poor souls in here. The only creed is humanism.’” Ruzickova says Fredy told her if he survived, he’d return to Prague and study the Czech politician Tomas Masaryk’s humanist teachings. He didn’t.

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n prisoners who worked with the Sonderkommando, running the ovens that disposed of the corpses, learned that the Terezín family camp was to be liquidated. In Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah, Czech-Israeli survivor Rudolf Vrba says Communist partisans asked him to pay a visit to Fredy. He says he found Fredy in his small room and implored him to lead an insurrection, reasoning that prisoners in this segregated camp were still strong enough to fight, and even if they did die, the world might learn of their plight. In the film, Vrba says Fredy objected, saying it didn’t makes sense that the Nazis would have allowed this special family camp if they planned to kill them all along. Fredy asked for time to think it over, and when the men came back for his answer, he was dead. Most believe Fredy Hirsch committed suicide because he did not want to risk lives, nor did he want to witness the mass murder of his adopted children and families. Some believe doctors who opposed the insurrection idea gave him a lethal overdose when he asked for something to calm his nerves. The debate over how Fredy died continues, and remains unresolved.
ON MARCH 7, 1944,

n I’d interview people about Fredy they’d attempt to establish my connection to his story. “So, are you Czech-ish?” They’d ask. No. “Someone from your family died in the camps?” No. “But you are Jewish?” Yes. Aaah. I’d managed one right answer. That exchange became familiar to me, but never lost its sting. What was right about that answer?
OFTEN WHEN

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n and his wife Dita agreed to talk to me about Fredy at their home in Netanya on Israel’s central seacoast. They were suspicious of me on the phone, and even more suspicious in person. Both have written about the Holocaust. They didn’t do much to disguise their feelings that talking to me would probably be a waste of time. Ota sat with me in the living room for much of the morning while Dita hovered, listening carefully, sizing me up. At the last minute, she decided to say a few words, as if just in case I did understand what I was doing, she wanted her thoughts to be included. But she kept her comments brief. As it turned out, the Krauses’ mostly just confirmed what other people had already told me, with added emphasis on a few Fredy “trademarks”—he lived with his whistle, the little pitch pipe he used to organize sporting events. And, they corroborated the mystique attached to this heartthrob I felt that somehow, I made sense to them: who liked the company of beauAh, here she is. The 30-year old American tiful women, but was rumored girl journalist who will tell Fredy’s story to prefer men. In Dita’s words, for us. “He had a bit of distance. Not aloof, but keeping a distance; a sort of wall around him.” Ota Kraus believed if Fredy died of an overdose, it was delivered by doctors who opposed the idea of an insurrection. “Fredy wasn’t the type for suicide.” After I interviewed him, Ota Kraus published his own reminisces of the children’s block in Auschwitz in a book he called The Painted Wall.
OTA KRAUS

n and Alissa Schiller, two grandmothers with tans and tennis shoes, were guardians of the Beit Terezín archive at Kibbutz Givat Chiam Ehud when I showed up there in 1993. They seemed to half expect me. Neither of these two women cared much for the cult of Fredy Hirsch. Too narcissistic, they told me. A body fetishist. Still, they dug into the archive and called around to several kibbutzniks, encouraging them to come talk to me about their memoALLISA SCHICK

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ries of Fredy during a planned reunion on an approaching Sunday. It was an informal afternoon. As I was introduced around the sunny kibbutz courtyard, I was greeted warmly, but not without the now-familiar scrutiny. I had something to prove, but I felt that somehow, I made sense to them: Ah, here she is. The 30-year old American girl journalist who will tell Fredy’s story for us. What can we tell you? Drinks were set down, hands extended, stories unspooled, addresses exchanged. That afternoon was twenty years ago. Many photos and sketches and letters have found me between that day and today; each piece with an apology that there isn’t more. There isn’t more. There is less. During those eighteen years, many of the people I talked to for this story have died. And finally, the internet was invented. In some ways, I believe it was invented just for stories like Fredy Hirsch’s. He belongs here, with us. Now I have no regrets that he was never invited onto the pages of a magazine where he’d be trapped in a single issue that few people would ever look for. Now any time anyone, anywhere Googles the words Holocaust and hero, Fredy Hirsch’s name will come up. And keep coming up. by Jody Becker Santa Monica, California March 2013 @linkedin

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