A Holocaust imposter? Pa. man lied about Auschwitz imprisonment and escape, historian says
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in June 09, 2016 at 11:33 AM, updated June 09, 2016 at 6:02 PM
For years, Joseph Hirt has traveled the country telling of his escape from Auschwitz as a wildly emaciated « 60-pound skeleton with skin » who slipped beneath an electric fence to freedom and later to a new life in America.
But during a recent presentation to a group in upstate New York, a skeptic emerged from within his usual audience of admirers.
Now, that skeptic says his research shows that much of the 90-year-old’s harrowing story is a lie.
That man is Andrew Reid, a local history teacher in Turin, N.Y., who on April 15 attended Hirt’s lecture in nearby Lowville. He was excited to hear a gripping firsthand account of Hirt’s life in, and eventual escape from, a Nazi death camp, he said.
But Reid was instead struck by discrepancies in Hirt’s version of events and in the evidence Hirt provided in support of his claims. Hirt’s nephew has since acknowledged his story as a lie. Hirt, meanwhile, stood by his claims when reached for comment by the Reading Eagle.
In researching Hirt, Reid concluded he lied about being imprisoned at Auschwitz, escaping from the camp and about his face-to-face encounters with the likes of Josef Mengele, the Nazi « Angel of Death. »
For example, Reid says:
• Hirt claims to have been captured by Nazis and sent to Auschwitz in 1941. He has said in various accounts that he escaped from Auschwitz in March 1942 – specifically, March 31, 1942, which he remembered because it was his father’s birthday.
• However, the prisoner number tattooed on Hirt’s upper left forearm belongs to a Polish person who entered Auschwitz in 1944, Reid says, citing officials at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Those same officials confirmed this information to PennLive on Thursday.
• The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website also says the practice of placing tattoos on the inside of the upper left forearm of Auschwitz prisoners, where Hirt’s is located, did not begin until 1943, years after he claims to have arrived.
• As for Hirt’s escape, Reid said officials at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum told him that there was only « one escape recorded in the months surrounding Mr. Hirt’s alleged date of escape, and that person was not Mr. Hirt. » This was also confirmed to PennLive.
• There is also the photo frequently displayed by Hirt at his speaking engagements which he claims was taken by an Auschwitz guard and which shows him emaciated and on a stretcher shortly before his escape in 1942. However, that photograph, according to Reid, was actually taken by a U.S. soldier liberating another concentration camp in another country in 1945.
Reid says the photo, viewable here, was taken by Mickey Martins, a member of the 42nd Infantry « Rainbow » Division of the U. S. Army which liberated Germany’s Dachau concentration camp in 1945.
Hirt’s wife declined to comment on the allegations when reached by PennLive Wednesday, saying Hirt had recently been hospitalized.
Reid also declined comment, directing a reporter instead to a painstaking chronicle of his research which he emailed to media outlets earlier this week.
That correspondence includes critical quotes from members of Hirt’s own family who dismiss his Auschwitz claims as false.
« The stories … are complete fabrications with regard to the Auschwitz stuff, » Michael Hirt, a nephew of Joseph’s, is quoted as saying.
« When I confronted him, he basically claimed that the stories were taken out of context, or that the authors fabricated the stories. Of course I do not believe this … Perhaps he might be shamed into stopping, although of course the damage is already done. »
When contacted by PennLive, Michael Hirt confirmed that he made those statements. He also said his uncle has been ostracized by his immediate family because of his claims, and was estranged from some family members even before he started making them.
« The story-telling was just icing on the cake, » Michael Hirt said, adding that he has only seen his uncle twice in 25 years and does not know him to have any pre-existing mental illness or condition that could explain away his Auschwitz account.
Michael Hirt also said his uncle has added « several years to his real age, » and is closer to 85 or 86.
In investigating the elder Hirt’s claims, Reid said he consulted officials at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland, as well as the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
Aaron Breitbart, senior researcher at the Center, a museum and charity focusing on racism in America and the history of the Holocaust, told PennLive that while unwilling to formally « confirm or deny the claims of those who say they were Auschwitz survivors, » the information on Hirt presented to him by Reid, « certainly raised my eyebrows. »
Much of Reid’s « debunking » involves a closer look at the dates and historical timelines presented by Hirt, ones Reid says were easily cross-checked. As for why no one has tried before, Reid says the answer is simple: « Who would suspect someone of making such extraordinary claims about such a topic? »
Reid also dismisses Hirt’s claim of a face-to-face encounter with Dr. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz before March of 1942, saying « it is well-documented that Mengele did not arrive at Auschwitz until May 1943, » more than a year later. The information is attributed to an official at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum who confirmed it in an email to PennLive on Thursday.
« I want to be clear, » Reid cautions, « I am not a Holocaust denier. In fact, the man who hired me for my first teaching job many years ago was a survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and it is partly in his memory and for the preservation of the truth of what millions of people endured that I have taken upon myself the task of exposing Mr. Hirt’s shameful deception. It is my hope that Mr. Hirt will voluntarily recant his fraudulent claims and cease his public presentations. »
Others, including Hirt’s nephew, fear the damage is already done.
« In spite of his desire to ‘do good,’ his exposure as a fraud fuels the fire of those who would say the holocaust was a fabrication, » Michael Hirt told Reid. « Perhaps his stories are therapeutic to him. I honestly do not know. »
Michael said he is unsure of why his uncle would lie in the first place, adding « He’s got a great story to tell without making stuff up. »
That story includes the elder Hirt’s escape from Europe during World War II with his family and their arrival in the United States as one of the 982 refugees granted « guest » status at the Emergency Refugee Shelter at Fort Ontario in Oswego, N.Y. in 1944.
Reid, citing members of the family, says Hirt and his siblings were born and lived in Horodenka, Poland — now Ukraine — and fled with their parents from Poland to Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1939, just before the Germans invaded.
In 1941 they fled Belgrade for Fiume, Yugoslavia as the war expanded, later crossing the Adriatic Sea and settling in and around Rapino, Italy.
While in Italy they remained in hiding for much of the time in the nearby mountains, Reid explained, and the family remained intact when the Allied armies liberated the southern part of Italy in 1944, rescuing them. Michael Hirt confirmed this account. He also said there were numerous distant relatives who perished in Nazi-run camps.
« The fact that he [Joseph Hirt] is one of less than 1,000 people to have been taken in by the U.S. during this episode of history – very few of whom are still alive – is in itself an amazing story, » Reid added.
But Reid says Hirt’s historical embellishments did not end with the family’s arrival in the U.S., and included his claims of befriending Eleanor Roosevelt at the Oswego, N.Y. refugee shelter and of using her to secure his family’s path to residency in the U.S. Michael Hirt says it may have been possible that his uncle and the first-lady crossed paths there, but that « I have no evidence of this. »
Reid also said Hirt falsely claimed that he attended the 1936 Olympics in Germany and was sitting close enough to hear Hitler disparage gold medalist Jesse Owens, something a growing number of historians now say never happened.
Michael Hirt says he now « half-believes » that his uncle was there, explaining « He [Joseph] has a still-living cousin in South America (Uruguay) that I visited about 13 years ago, and she mentioned having attended the olympics with my uncle Joe. »
As for the claims he says are false, Michael Hirt has raised them with some of Joseph Hirt’s siblings, and even with Joseph himself.
« I called him several weeks ago, I suppose, after corresponding with Andrew Reid, and I confronted uncle Joe, » Michael said. « His response to me was that ‘if a reporter had written those things in the newspaper then they’ve misquoted or misrepresented me.' »
When pressed on a photo of the prison tattoo he claims was given to him at Auschwitz, Michael said his uncle denied its existence.
« He said if there was a photo of him with a tattoo it was a faked photo, » Michael said.
« He would not own up to it, » the nephew added.
« He was in complete denial. »
UPDATE: This article has been updated to include a relative’s claim that Joseph Hirt is actually 85 or 86-years-old, not 90 as he has previously claimed.