By Kimmie Semiday
This article was originally published in Issue 14, Fiftieth Year of The Minstrel (April 28, 2016). Click here to view the entire issue.
When a person hears the words “Holocaust survivor,” many things come to mind. At first it is easy to feel a tremendous amount of remorse and a sense of pity when one thinks of the horrors that the survivor must have encountered in concentration camps, but for Dr. Joseph Hirt, his story is not one of a victim, but one of a “witness.”
On Tuesday, April 12, DeSales hosted Dr. Joseph Hirt, a Holocaust survivor, courtesy of the DeSales Knights of Columbus, Men’s Group and L.I.F.T.
The leader of the Knights of Columbus Roundtable, senior Ryan Fischer, was the driving force behind Dr. Hirt’s attending DeSales University. Fischer tracked Dr. Hirt down and planned his visit to DeSales.
“Tracking down Dr. Hirt took the longest for us. I got in touch with some teachers at my high school, called the local historical society, did some internet research… all without much success,” said Fischer. “Over winter break I found a PO address for a Dr. Joseph Hirt, and so I sent a letter hoping it would arrive to the right person,” continued Fischer.
The night began with dinner and light-hearted chatter amongst those in attendance, but the room soon fell quiet as Dr. Hirt made his way to the podium. He began his speech by letting the crowd know that he was “90 years young” and that in two days following the event, he and his wife would be sharing 50 years of marriage.
Hirt was engaged with the audience through the entirety of his story. He also welcomed and encouraged listeners to interrupt him with questions, which allowed for an open and honest environment for such a heavy subject.
For Fischer, this was his third time hearing Hirt speak, and his humble personality was what pushed Fischer to get Hirt to DeSales.
“It is fascinating to listen to someone who has experienced so much history first hand seeing both the best and worst of humanity,” said Fischer. “Dr. Hirt’s life story is unparalleled. He is such a humble and warm person, and it was simply an honor to have him come to DeSales,” continued Fischer.
During the three-hour-long speech, Hirt gave a detailed description of what life looked like for him and his family pre- and post-Auschwitz. He also told stories of his time at the Olympic Games with his father in 1936, where he got to see Jesse Owens win four gold medals and hear Adolf Hitler refuse to shake Owens’ hand.
Hirt was not shy when divulging information about his experience in Auschwitz, and at one point of the night even openly showed the audience the number that he was tattooed with when he arrived at the concentration camp. When recalling being asked why he wouldn’t remove his number, he responded with, “I will go to meet my maker with my tattoo.”
As the night progressed, the stories of his time at Auschwitz became more detailed as he spoke of the conditions and treatment of the prisoners that were forced to stay there. Hirt talked about the desperation of wanting to escape, the survivor’s remorse he felt when he did escape and the effects his journey still have on him today.
According to Hirt, he can no longer attend summer picnics or barbecues due to the memories the smell evokes, but he also is able to look on the positive side of his horrific experience. Hirt was reminiscent of the joy that came with being reunited with his family who were in prison while he was taken to Auschwitz, and spoke of the blessing it was to meet his wife and come to America to finally “begin his life.”
“Hearing Dr. Hirt speak was truly incredible. The fact that he has seen and remembered so much and still maintains a positive outlook on life was amazing to witness. It was an unforgettable experience,” said Sarah Bridge, senior communication major.
Dr. Hirt exemplified courage, perseverance and hope. Hirt explained that the first English word he ever learned from a doctor at Auschwitz was “hope,” and for many people in the audience, including Bridge, hope was what he gave them.