Joseph B. Hirt has gained increasing prominence as a living witness to the Holocaust. The problem: He never escaped from a concentration camp because he was never imprisoned in one.
For the last 10 years, Lancaster County’s Joseph B. Hirt, a former psychologist and one-time Philadelphia-area guidance counselor, has gained increasing prominence as a living witness to the Holocaust.
He’s spoken to church groups, school assemblies, newspaper editorial boards, civic associations, veterans’ events and many other gatherings in multiple states about his experience as a Holocaust survivor.
He’s appeared on TV and had countless articles written about him, including a laudatory Philadelphia Inquirer article, published in 2006, that begins: “For decades, a Chester Springs man guarded a searing secret. Now, 65 years after escaping from a concentration camp …”
There’s only one problem: Hirt’s “searing secret” was a lie. He never escaped from a concentration camp because he was never imprisoned in one.
Hirt, who is now in his late 80s, was unmasked last month by Andrew Reid, a history teacher in upstate New York who went to see Hirt speak earlier this year and found his story implausible.
After doing a significant amount of research, Reid sent a thoroughly sourced 29-page document to media outlets, organizations that had sponsored Hirt and to Hirt himself, challenging the veracity of his claims.
A few weeks later, Hirt sent a rambling letter to the Lancaster-based LNP, admitting that he fabricated his story.
“I am writing today to apologize publicly for harm caused to anyone because of my inserting myself into the descriptions of life in Auschwitz,” Hirt wrote. “I was not a prisoner there. I did not intend to lessen or overshadow the events which truly happened there by falsely claiming to have been personally involved.”
Hirt, who is of the Baha’i faith, wrote he was “seeking help from my pastor” as well as from a mental health professional “to try to understand how I swerved off in my presentations in a direction that should not have been taken.”
Such swerving, as he calls it, was remarkably consistent.
For instance, Hirt often presented an enlarged photograph of an emaciated body at his talks, which he claimed was taken of him while he was at Auschwitz. He explained that the reason he was on a stretcher in the photo was because he had tended to a guard’s feet, and the guard then allowed Hirt to sleep there. None of this is true. The photo was actually taken by an American soldier, Mickey Martins, as he liberated Dachau in 1945.
Hirt also liked to roll his sleeve up and show groups a series of numbers on his left arm — a tattoo he said he got at the concentration camp. In actuality, he got the tattoo voluntarily in the U.S., well after the war was over.
Other lies he repeated included a “face to face” encounter with Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele; a dramatic escape from Auschwitz, during which he claimed he crawled under a fence; being saved from certain death by a benevolent Nazi who allowed Hirt to run away after his escape; a friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, who supposedly intervened on his family’s behalf; attendance at the 1936 Olympic games where he claimed to witness Hitler snub athlete Jesse Owens; and a meeting with Owens years later in Lancaster, in which they supposedly discussed the snub. (The snub story was debunked by historians — and by Owens himself.)
Hirt — who did come from a Jewish family — claimed in presentations that he was not Jewish, and that this is partly what saved his life when circumcised men were shot on sight.
In trying to puzzle out the inconsistencies, Reid reached out to Hirt’s relatives. One family member told Reid he’d confronted Hirt about his lying, but that Hirt said his remarks were taken out of context. Hirt’s brother, a psychologist, thought perhaps Hirt was delusional and believed his own lies.
But that wasn’t the case. He knew them to be false as he told them.
Though Hirt wrote, “I was wrong. I ask forgiveness,” he also devotes many paragraphs in his letter to self-justifying rationales. Detailing an entirely different and newly revealed personal wartime history, Hirt wrote of fleeing Belgrade with his family and spending years in hiding, “in cramped quarters, in constant fear of discovery or outright betrayal.” It was this wartime trauma, Hirt wrote, that plagued him with demons for years after the family immigrated first to Canada, and then to the U.S.
In order to confront this pain, he wrote, he visited Europe as an adult, and took a trip to Auschwitz. He was bothered by its commercialization: “I found a clean and polished tourist destination. Fine European cars were parked where prisoners had reported to line up for roll call … there was a gift shop stocked with pictures, postcards and pamphlets … I was distressed at the lack of feeling about the heartache, the suffering, and so much death.”
The trip inspired his subsequent fraud: “I determined at that moment to do everything in my power to prevent the loss of the truth about wartime life [and death] at Auschwitz.”
He came back to the U.S. and researched the Holocaust.
“The more I learned, the more real the images became, and the more intense my feeling of responsibility for keeping the memories alive,” he wrote. “How could I assure that the message of the Holocaust would be heard and understood?”
Hirt then referenced Lawrence Langer, author of Versions of Survival, in which Langer writes about the uncertainty of survivor accounts due to a “collision between memory and truth.” Quoting Langer at length, Hirt seemed to imply a connection between his own fabrications and the actual survivor’s sometimes troubled process of recollection.
He also hinted that good came of his fraud: “Both young listeners and adults responded to my presentations with feeling and often with a desire to share in the task of never forgetting and bearing witness. It wasn’t about me.”
Unfortunately, anti-Semitic websites, hate groups and Holocaust deniers are making it about him, using Hirt’s story to bolster their claims and discredit other survivor accounts, including those of Elie Wiesel and Nate Leipciger, who recently toured Auschwitz with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
This puts historian Reid in some unpleasant company, but it should not: “I am not a Holocaust denier,” he explained. “I believe in truth.”
In fact, it was a Polish-American Holocaust survivor who first hired Reid for a teaching job, and who inspired Reid’s interest in the topic.
“When I saw an advertisement for a Holocaust survivor coming to my area,” he wrote, “I told my classes and encouraged them to go. And I took my own eighth-grade daughter because I wanted her to hear the truth in person before there are no more survivors to hear firsthand.”
Hirt has not spoken to the press since sending his letter. His wife has deflected comment on Hirt’s behalf, telling England’s Guardian that Hirt was in the hospital, and telling this reporter that he was home but “has been very stressed out” and would rather not comment.
She did say, however, that he’s gotten a lot of support from groups that had him come to speak. “They’ve said, ‘We wor-ship the same God: the God of forgiveness.’ ”
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