The Joseph Hirt Story
Twenty Years as a Fake Auschwitz-Survivor
By Hadding Scott
Joseph Bernard Hirt worked as a school psychologist and psychology-teacher in Chester County, Pennsylvania until his retirement in 1993. It was not long after this that Hirt took up a second career – as a “Holocaust survivor.” In this role Hirt achieved significant regional notoriety.
The early period of Hirt's career as a Holocaust survivor is described in an adulatory newspaper-article from 2006. The article quotes a friend of Hirt's, Chester County Court Judge John L. Hall, to the effect that Hirt had begun telling the story of his adventures at Auschwitz “about ten years ago” (roughly 1996).
People were willing to believe Hirt's tale in spite of the fact that he had passed most of his life without ever mentioning that he had been in Auschwitz:
“'I have been silent so long because I questioned the manner of asking anyone to comprehend' such torture and degradation, the 81-year-old Holocaust survivor said.
“As a result, many of Hirt's confidants had no inkling of a past that included multiple arrests, brushes with death, and eight months in a concentration camp infamous for its atrocities.” (K.B. Shea, Philadelphia Enquirer, 17 August 2006)
Immediately, the retired psychologist found that as a Holocaust survivor he was able to have a powerful effect on people, for example on Judge Hall:
“'It was the most stunning conversation I've ever had with anyone,' Hall said.”
“'People talk about turning the other cheek; he actually lives it,' Hall said. 'That's a manner of living one's life to be emulated.'” (K.B. Shea, Philadelphia Enquirer, 17 August 2006)
With the impression that Hirt had made on Judge Hall, Hirt was able to get a part-time job with the court. (Hall was “delighted when Hirt agreed to join his office part time as a tipstaff, whose duties include ushering witnesses and jurors.”) In 2016, the teacher who invited Hirt to speak at Boyertown High gave Hirt $200 out of his own pocket, allegedly to help Hirt with moving expenses (David Mekeel, Reading Eagle, 9 June 2016). With those instances of generosity appearing in the news, there must be many others that were not reported. Such are the benefits of surviving the Holocaust.
It seems to have been in 2001, however, that Hirt really became a professional Holocaust survivor:
“In 2001, he conducted a 10-week adult night school class about his experiences, which led to other speaking engagements....” (K.B. Shea, Philadelphia Enquirer, 17 August 2006)
Hirt's activity as a lecturing Holocaust survivor has been not only lengthy but intense. Publicity for a presentation by Hirt several years ago states:
“Hirt frequently speaks to church groups, schools and other organizations throughout Lancaster County and surrounding areas.” (Jennifer Wentz, Lancaster Online, 27 January 2014)
It is reported that Hirt's presentation over the past two decades continued to have as profound an effect on other audiences as it initially had on Judge Hall:
“[Frances] Smith [secretary of the Caernarvon Historical Society] and the historical society's president, Yvonne Styer, decided to invite Hirt to Caernarvon after witnessing his emotional recounting of his experiences at an event in New Holland several months ago.
“'It's very moving, and you will have nightmares,' Smith said of Hirt's presentation. 'It's hard to believe that anything like this happened.'
“Smith hopes that Hirt's words will not only convince people that the atrocities of the Holocaust did happen, but also encourage them to make sure that they never happen again.” (Jennifer Wentz, Lancaster Online, 27 January 2014)
In August 2014, when he visited Blue Ball, Pennsylvania, Hirt's story was reported on local television station WGAL. The self-aggrandizement and demand for pity are obvious in Hirt's statements to WGAL:
“I have nightmares, I still do. I keep running. I keep escaping.”
(The claim of having been permanently traumatized is an important part of Hirt's act.) Hirt told WGAL that a doctor in the camp ordered him to live so that he could tell the story of what happened in the camp.
“You know, I think of myself as history on two legs.” (WGAL-TV, 22 August 2014 )
Thus for twenty years, in eastern Pennsylvania and New York State, retired school psychologist Joseph Hirt has been a highly active and effective dysangelist, perpetuating and strengthening belief in the bad news of the Jewish Holocaust among what were, to a great extent, Christian audiences.
Hirt was even able to persuade his victims to pay him for inflicting nightmares upon them and distorting their outlook on life. The payment for one of Hirt's appearances at a school was reported as $250. (David Mekeel, Reading Eagle, 9 June 2016)
On 15 April 2016 at 7 PM Hirt was to give a presentation at Lowville Academy & Central School in Lowville, Pennsylvania, sponsored by the Adirondack Mennonite Heritage Association. Bernardine Schwarzentruber, president of the Mennonite group, had heard about Hirt from her sister, who had witnessed a heavily attended presentation at a church 1½ years earlier.
Mrs. Schwartzentruber opined that the Mennonite group was “privileged” to hear Hirt speak. The Mennonite group was privileged, not only to hear Hirt's story, but also because of the crowd that he would draw and, apparently, the donations that would follow. “Free will offerings” would be accepted “to cover expenses, with any extra money going to the association.” This was above and beyond a $1000 grant from a nonprofit foundation that presumably covered Hirt's fee (and that of another speaker, John Ruth, who actually speaks about Mennonite history).
In 2015 Hirt addressed the Rotary Club of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The Rotary Roundup of 2 March 2015 summarized Hirt's presentation:
“Dr. Joseph Hirt, 89, of Adamstown, Lancaster County was born in Poland.... As a teenager, while he and his family were foraging for food during World War II in Belgrade, Hirt was kidnapped during a round-up and became a prisoner at the German Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz. He arrived in Auschwitz in 1941. He escaped Auschwitz after eight months by crawling under an electric fence. He was recaptured but, he said, 'I was allowed to live by one of the Nazis.' Hirt came face to face with the so-called Angel of Death, Dr. Josef Mengele, while at Auschwitz. Years before his capture, he had attended the Olympics in 1936 in Berlin with his father where he saw Adolf Hitler refuse to shake hands with American Olympian Jesse Owens. 'The thing is that made me a witness to history. I was there. I saw it,' Hirt said.” (Rotary Roundup, 2 March 2015)
Essentially the same story was told in a press-release posted on Mars Hill Network (and with redactions in the Watertown Daily Times) to promote Hirt's 2016 appearance before the Mennonites in Lowville. It states that Hirt “became a prisoner at the most notorious concentration camp in Auschwitz.” Fear not, however! This is an inspirational story for Christians, because: “His faith in God gave him strength to survive each day.”
“The atrocities he witnessed and experienced at the camp are forever in his memory. He shares his story at the age of over 90 years so that the listeners will never forget the Holocaust. He is writing his life story and expects to have the book available for sale at the April 15 event.” (Mars Hill Network)(S. Virkler, Watertown Daily Times, 9 April 2016)
As it turned out, Hirt's book, which, putatively, he has been writing for at least ten years, was not yet ready in time for the event in Lowville. It may be that the purpose of claiming to be writing a book all this time was to increase Hirt's semblance of importance. It turns out, however, according to the president of the Adirondack Mennonite Heritage Association, that Hirt has been taking advance orders for this book (B. Schwartzentruber, Journal & Republican , 30 June 2016). Has he been taking advance orders on this book for ten years?
Creeping Doubts about Hirt's Story
On 19 April 2016, Hirt gave a presentation at a local high school that was reported in the Reading Eagle.
According to this report, Hirt presented himself as a saint of a man, insofar as he was not vengeful toward the Germans who treated him so badly. (Be thankful for such mercy, you Germans!) He cannot, however, forgive:
“By forgiving, you forget, and that's something I will not do.”
The climax of Hirt's story, the escape from Auschwitz was reported as follows:
“Hirt escaped Auschwitz at age 17 after enduring eight months of near starvation. A guard dog dug a hole under an electric fence, so Hirt took his chance. He got past the fence, but was caught by a soldier guarding the perimeter.
“'The soldier caught me. He said he was going to take me to the wall to shoot me.'
“Hirt … struck up a conversation with the soldier in German. He asked where the soldier was from and if he had a family. The soldier did, and he had a son about Hirt's age.
“'I asked him how he would feel if he knew his son was being taken to be shot as I was,' Hirt said. 'He was surprised. It had never occurred to him. I was just a human being.'
“Hirt ran as far and fast as he could until he came to a farm, where he hid for three months. (Gabbie O'Grady, Reading Eagle, 20 April 2016)
At least one student at that high school was perplexed at Hirt's story of escape from Auschwitz, and was quoted in the newspaper:
"I think it's strange he was able to get past (the Nazi guard) how he did,' said Boyertown senior Trey Yarnall.” (Ibid.)
The reporter's decision to include this quote implies that she too doubted parts of Hirt's story.
Even Phil Specht, the teacher of English and humanities who had invited Hirt to speak at Boyertown High, says that he disbelieved some details of Hirt's story, but somehow was willing to overlook those problems and continued to assume that Hirt was fundamentally honest:
“Specht, who first saw Hirt speak at a church in Emmaus about two years ago, said Hirt's talk was so good he simply had to get him to speak at Boyertown.
“Specht said he was a bit skeptical of some of the things Hirt claimed but didn't really think that he could be a fraud.
"'Some of the things he was saying were just out of this world impossible,' Specht said. "But it was the same routine story every time I heard him speak."
“Specht was especially skeptical of the photo Hirt said was of him at 70 pounds in the camp.
"'I had a hard time believing that photo was him, but if it gives him comfort, then I let it go,' Specht said.” (David Mekeel, Reading Eagle, 9 June 2016)
In retrospect, it seems that many who heard Hirt's talks saw problems in his story, or even understood that some of what he said could not be true, yet somehow were inhibited from drawing the obvious conclusion that a story containing several impossibilities might simply be a false story, or, what is even more disturbing, felt that Hirt's falsehoods must be indulged.
It is especially dismaying that teachers, who are responsible for the cultivation of clear thinking, and journalists, who are responsible for discovering and reporting accurate information, allowed Hirt to get away with this act year after year without criticism, even when they had clear indications that something was wrong. Moreover, one of Hirt's first dupes was a judge.
Andrew Reid's Skepticism
Finally, there was a man who could see that the emperor had no clothes, and was also willing to say it. Andrew R. Reid, a trained historian and history-teacher at South Lewis Middle School in Turin, New York, attended Hirt's presentation in Lowville on 15 April 2016, and had encouraged his students to do the same. Reid recognized that several details of Hirt's narrative could not be true – in particular Hirt's use of what he claimed was a photograph of himself in Auschwitz, and the claim that he had met Jesse Owens in Lancaster, where Reid was born. Reid felt a professional duty not to let Hirt get away with it. The day after hearing Hirt speak, Reid began collecting information from various reputable sources, even from Hirt's own nephew Michael, to prove that the most important parts of Joseph Hirt's story were false.
In a letter dated 8 June 2016 and addressed “Dear Editor” – to the editors of the various news-media that had promoted Hirt – Reid summarizes the most important points of the case against Hirt:
“(1) Mr. Hirt was never at Auschwitz during World War II – the Auschwitz prisoner list is available online at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museim website and there is no record of a Joseph Hirt. The number he has tattooed on his arm – which he claims was his prison ID – is the real number of another prisoner from 1944. Camp records show only one escape in the months surrounding Mr. Hirt's alleged date of escape, and that person was not Mr. Hirt; (2) Mr. Hirt claims to have come 'face-to-face' with Dr. Josef Mengele while a prisoner at Auschwitz concentration camp before escaping 31 March 1942 – it is well documented that Mengele did not arrive at Auschwitz until May 1943; (3) the picture of an emaciated man on a stretcher that he claims is him right before he escaped is, in fact, one that was taken by a soldier in the U.S. Army, Mickey Martin, a member of the 42nd Infantry 'Rainbow' Division of the U.S. Army which liberated the Dachau concentration camp in 1945. ”
The points in Reid's “Dear Editor” letter all relate to Hirt's claims about Auschwitz, which are the element in Hirt's story that had the greatest impact on his audiences. Reid says that audiences would gasp when he showed them the photo of a typhus-sufferer from Dachau, claiming that it was a picture of himself as “a skeleton with skin” having been deliberately starved in Auschwitz.
It was in a much longer letter, also dated 8 June 2016 but addressed “To Whom It May Concern,” that Reid went into detail about the points in the “Dear Editor” letter but also debunked several less important lies that Hirt had told.
Hirt's story includes chance encounters with Adolf Hitler, Josef Mengele, and Jesse Owens, and that he not only met but developed a friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. Hirt claims that through Eleanor Roosevelt he was able to gain President Franklin Roosevelt's intervention to allow his family to stay in the United States. Auschwitz of course, where Hirt claims to have been sent, is the most famous name in alleged extermination-camps.
Hirt had also been misrepresenting his religious affiliation, claiming despite Jewish ethnicity that he had been raised Christian (most likely to elicit greater credulity and sympathy from Christian audiences).
Reid determines that all of this is false. (It is entirely possible that Hirt met Eleanor Roosevelt when she visited the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter in September 1944, but President Roosevelt had died in April, so that Hirt's story of the favor that she did for him is impossible.) There is no need to go into great detail about Reid's proofs, since Hirt has now admitted that all of his claims relating to Auschwitz were false (his other lies being of less importance).
Hirt, however, initially resisted. Following Reid's revelations on 8 June the Reading Eagle contacted Hirt for his reaction:
“Reached by phone Wednesday afternoon, Hirt, after first denying any knowledge of the questions surrounding his story, lashed out at Reid. 'You tell him to get a life and leave me alone,' he said. 'I don't care for his questions. I'm sick and I'm tired and I'm old and I don't need this crap.' Hirt then hung up the phone.
“Reached a second time Wednesday night, Hirt said Reid's claims against him are untrue. 'There's nothing to defend,' he said. 'I was there, and I don't need to defend it. This is like being forced to defend being raped.'
“Hirt's nephew, Michael Hirt, who lives in Illinois, said that much of what his uncle has been sharing about his life isn't true. 'His story is essentially correct until the part where he talks about being kidnapped and being taken to Auschwitz,' Michael Hirt said in a phone interview Wednesday. 'That's where the storytelling begins.'" (D. Mekeel, Reading Eagle, 9 June 2016)
Joseph Hirt's initial response was to express outrage and to try to bluff his way out of the situation. Perhaps he would have succeeded if his own nephew had not spoken against him.
Hirt's Reluctant Retreat
In a letter dated 6 June 2016, which (according to a response from Reid to my inquiry) Hirt did not receive until 9 June, Reid appealed to Hirt for a
“public repentant response in the near future.”
In the absence of such repentance, said Reid, he would petition the district attorneys of Lewis and Lancaster counties to investigate Hirt for
“fraud, identity theft, and forgery.”
On 24 June 2016, two weeks after the controversy became public, Joseph Hirt issued a kind of apology that was published by Lancaster Online.
Within the text of that epistle, before Hirt apologizes for anything, he offers six paragraphs summarizing mainstream holocaustography and asserting the importance of remembering the Holocaust. Such a dull and lengthy preface, without any indication at the beginning of what the real point will be, reflects Hirt's reluctance to confess his dishonesty, and is most likely a deliberate tactic for making sure that many readers will lose interest before seeing the actual confession. In any case Hirt wants everyone to know that the Holocaust itself is not a lie, even though he lied to perpetuate it.
When Hirt finally does get to the point, it is an equivocal apology loaded with self-justification. The self-justification consists mainly in Hirt's insistence that his lying was motivated by idealism. Sacred Truth needed Joseph Hirt's help, in the form of lying! Of course, Hirt's intentions were good:
“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. I was wrong in using an untruth (my presence) in an attempt to enhance the important truth of the suffering and death of so many.... I used poor judgment and faulty reasoning, risking a sullying of the truth I was trying to share.”
Thus, Hirt maintains that he was not doing actual harm by lying to his audiences; it was a holy lie. Regardless of the money that he made from posing as a formerly starved Auschwitz survivor, it wasn't about him. According to Hirt's logic, the harm in his well-intentioned ruse was strictly potential, in the risk of being found out.
Another way to look at it is that if Hirt's fraud hadn't been discovered, it would have been all for the good! If by chance one is sympathetic to Hirt, one might be inclined to say that Reid is a reckless meddler for exposing such a beneficent deception. He should have kept his mouth shut!
A more cynical way to state the matter, putting aside the pretense that Hirt was doing good or intended to do good, is that Hirt is sorry only that he was caught.
Reid had asked for repentance but there is no real repentance here at all. A good indication of the lack of repentance is that Hirt continues to lie. This is clear.
Hirt declares in his apology:
“I am seeking help from my pastor. He knows my heart and my intent.... I ask your prayers and support.... Again I ask your forgiveness.”
But according to the information published by Andrew Reid, Hirt is “of the Bahai faith.” The Bahai have no clergy! Pastor is a term associated especially with Protestant Christianity. This is Joseph Hirt continuing to pander for sympathy and indulgence from Christians.
Another class of lie in Hirt's apology are his attempts to retain some spurious residual status as a Holocaust survivor. Since his claim of having been at Auschwitz is debunked, he must now rely on other episodes that Reid did not address. Whereas Hirt had been claiming trauma from his experiences at Auschwitz, he now claims trauma from experiences in Yugoslavia and Italy:
“My family and I had spent the war years in hiding. We had suffered extreme trauma physically and psychologically, in cramped quarters, in constant fear of discovery or outright betrayal....”
Hirt is trying to maintain that he suffered horrendously during the war even though what is left of his story no longer supports it. By Hirt's own account – as it now stands – the family, after 1½ years in Yugoslavia prior to that country's involvement in conflict, then spent most of the period from 1941 to 1945 in one refugee-camp after another – first in Fascist Italy, then in Allied-occupied Italy, then in the United States – which is certainly not an ideal life, but preferable to experiencing an Allied area-bombing, or fighting on the Eastern Front, or being caught in the advance of the Red Army. There are abundant stories from the Second World War much more horrible than what is left of Joseph Hirt's story. He does not claim that any member of his immediate family died during the war.
He does however still tell two dubious tales of unpleasant interactions with Germans, both of which carry the odor of stale, old war-propaganda.
Hirt says that the Italian Fascist government allowed his family into Italy as refugees from Yugoslavia in 1941 (after they were caught trying to enter the country fraudulently by pretending to be Italian citizens), and sent them to a refugee-camp at Rapino. After the collapse of Italy's Fascist government in 1943, the guards deserted the camp, and Hirt's family hired a guide to take them to the Americans:
“… who, as it turned out had accepted money from the enemy, too. We found ourselves led directly into the hands of an enemy snow patrol, invisible in their white gear until they rose from the snow around us. Father was thrown to the ground. His fingers were broken when his outspread hands were trampled by uniformed boots.”
Hirt does not explain by what miracle his family escaped this predicament. Also, the claim that an entire patrol lay waiting in the snow to ambush one little Jewish family seems absurd. This is too much drama. The story implies that Hirt's family was highly important when it was not.
Another ridiculous story that Hirt still tells is about an encounter with a haughty and sadistic SS-officer:
“I was on the street (in Belgrade) returning with food for the family when an SS officer stopped me and asked my name. I stood at attention, looked straight into his face, and made eye-contact. At this point he hauled off and struck me in the nose and chin with his clenched fist. I ended up on the ground, bleeding from my nose and mouth as he screamed at me, 'How dare you, you Untermensch, look at me, a member of the master race. You look at the ground. Show humility. Be humble.' As I lay on the ground bleeding, he kicked me in the ribs as he walked away.”
Of course Hirt claims to have been permanently traumatized by this alleged incident.
Such a portrayal of pointless, hubristic brutality is like a scene straight out of a Hollywood movie. The story is extremely unlikely, for various reasons relating to the differences between Hollywood and reality.
For one thing, German personnel who physically harmed civilians without specific justification or orders were subject to punishment. Thus, the essence of the story is likely false on its face. But details of this episode (like the details of Hirt's Auschwitz-episode) also should raise red flags.
Contrary to widespread belief in the United States, Germans during the period of Hitler's rule did not habitually refer to themselves as members of “the master race.” The accusation that Germans in general regarded themselves as the master-race had been made during the First World War, and even at that time it was essentially false.
The term master-race had been used in English (e.g. John H. van Evrie, White Supremacy and Negro Subordination, New York, 1868, p. 38 ) long before the propaganda of the First World War accused the Germans of regarding themselves as “the master-race” fit to rule over Anglo-Saxons (as represented e.g. by the New York Times Current History of the War, 1915, p. 118).
Noteworthy in this kind of propaganda were quotes from Karl Felix Wolff, a self-taught Austrian folklorist and poet who wrote for Alldeutsche Blätter and Mannus, and, because of his eccentric views, was usefully quoted in the Entente's anti-German propaganda. To impart greater importance to Wolff's statements, he was sometimes identified as a “Pan-German leader” (Theosophical Quarterly, April 1917, p. 301), or called “Dr.” Wolff (Anton Nystrom, Before, During, and After 1914, New York, 1916, pp. 47-48), when in reality he was merely a writer without academic credentials.
The term master-race (Herrenrasse), while it had been used by a fringe-figure during the First World War, seems not to have been used in German National-Socialist literature at all. The word does not appear in Mein Kampf, nor in Rosenberg's Mythos, nor in any German National-Socialist material that I have seen.
Herrenvolk appears several times in Mein Kampf, but this word is not properly translated as “master-race” (although such invidious mistranslation is commonplace). Herrenvolk is a general term referring to any people that happens to rule over another people, like the Normans in Mediaeval England, or, subsequently, the British in their empire. A German publication from 1933 states: “The Romans were undoubtedly the most important hegemonic people (Herrenvolk) of world-history” (Monatsschrift für das Deutsche Geistesleben, 1933, p. 317). Herrenvolk thus denotes imperial achievement rather than racial quality.
Even this misunderstood word Herrenvolk was not, however, an important element of National-Socialist propaganda. Ferdinand Hermens, an associate professor of economics at Notre Dame University who was familiar with the situation in Germany, attempted to correct this misconception:
“The point, of course, is that the German press and radio do not talk eternally about Germans as the Herrenvolk.” (F. Hermens, The Tyrants' War and the People's Peace, U. Chicago Press 1944, p. 235)
The belief that Germans during the period of Hitler's rule habitually spoke of themselves as the master-race was due to the residual influence of Anglo-American propaganda of the First World War, which the Anglo-American propaganda of the Second World War largely copied. The gap between propaganda and reality here is such that it is extremely unlikely that Joseph Hirt encountered any SS-officer who referred to himself as “a member of the master-race,” although it is understandable why Hirt would invent such a story if he is still, as formerly in the case of Auschwitz, inserting himself into scenarios about which he has read.
Overcoming the Fear of Questioning
In the first sentence of his "conclusion" about Joseph Hirt, Andrew Reid states:
“The fact that no one has challenged Mr. Hirt's extraordinary claims is not surprising – who would suspect someone of making such extraordinary claims about such a topic?” (A. Reid, long letter of 8 June 2016)
Anyone even slightly familiar with Holocaust Revisionism would not be saying this. False witnesses abound, and have been exposed as liars since the days of Paul Rassinier. The defenders of the Holocaust faith know it. The general public however has not had this fact impressed upon its consciousness, which is an important reason why Joseph Hirt was able to perpetrate his deception for so long without being challenged.
Reid, who affirms that he is "not a Holocaust Denier," says that he was emboldened upon seeing an article from a few years ago by British historian Guy Walters (also "not a Holocaust Denier") that lists seven famous Holocaust memoirs as frauds (Daily Mail, 21 June 2013). With this precedent Reid's inhibition against challenging Holocaust frauds was reduced. Now Reid's own well publicized exposure of Joseph Hirt's deception carries the long overdue normalization of Holocaust-skepticism one more step forward.