Fredy Hirsch was born on February 11, 1916, in Aachen Germany. He was the son of Heinrich and Olga Hirsch. When he was ten, his father died and his mother later remarried. When Hitler came to power, Fredy’s mother, stepfather and brother moved to Bolivia, but Fredy stayed behind to continue the work he had begun with children.
In 1935, the Nuremburg Laws were enacted and Hirsch fled to Czechoslovakia at the age of 19. There he was active in the Maccabi Hatzair youth movement and the Zionist Hehalutz organization, running summer camps and helping to prepare young Jews to make aliyah to British Mandatory Palestine.
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.
In the Ghetto
In December 1941, Hirsch was sent to Theresienstadt and became the deputy to Egon (Gonda) Redlich, the head of the ghetto youth department. Hirsch made sure the children maintained their hygiene, helped them continue their studies, played games and put on plays.
Hirsch cultivated relationships with the Germans, which allowed him to secure the release of some children from transports. 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 a transport along with 5,006 other people prior to 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 counselors 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 counselors 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 disease. Hirsch again made friends with guards who allowed the children to receive better food and to stay indoors for twice-daily roll calls.
An Uncertain End
The prisoners were unaware they had been chosen for “special treatment,” meaning they were to be gassed after six months rather than immediately. They had heard rumors beforehand that the Germans planned to kill the people in the family camp, but the Nazis maintained the deception that they were to be transferred to a labor camp.
Instead, on March 7, 1944, everyone from the Theresienstadt transport who was not in the hospital was moved to a detention camp. On March 8, 1944, exactly six months after their arrival, 3,792 prisoners were murdered in the gas chambers. Later, approximately 3,500 men and women healthy enough to work were transferred to labor camps. The 6,500 who remained behind were killed in July 1944.
Hirsch’s fate afterward is a mystery. The most common theory is that he committed suicide by taking Luminal pills, but one survivor said he died of an overdose of the drug given to him by Jewish doctors.
In 1996, a memorial with Hirsch’s face carved in stone was placed on the wall of the school building in Theresienstadt. The inscription reads: “In memoriam Fredy Hirsch – gratefully, children of Terezin, Birkenau BIIb.
Source: Michal Aharony, “The Unknown Hero Who Saved Children at Auschwitz,” Haaretz, April 5, 2018).