Fredy Hirsch was just an exhibit at Yad Vashem when Adam Melzer decided to dedicate a basketball tournament to the Holocaust hero. But since the first annual NCSY Fredy Hirsch tournament last month in Teaneck, a local survivor has made Hirsch a little bit more real for the tournament’s organizers.
Hackensack resident Leo Lowy stepped forward after reading The Jewish Standard’s account of a basketball tournament in Hirsch’s honor.
Melzer, a Teaneck resident and basketball coach at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, chose to honor Hirsch with the tournament and turned to the National Council of Synagogue Youth for help. While three kibbutzim in Israel are named in Hirsch’s memory, he remains mostly unknown in the United States.
"The first time I read about Fredy Hirsch in the United States was here," said Lowy, referring to the Oct. ‘6 Jewish Standard article about the NCSY tournament. After reading the article, the Hackensack resident called Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, director of New Jersey’s NCSY office, which had sponsored the tournament.
Fredy Hirsch, Prague 1941. Photo courtesy yad vashem jerusalem quarterly magazine
"My first reaction was surprise," Glasser said. "I thought of the Fredy Hirsch connection, that had really come through Adam, as being anonymous. I didn’t realize he had been so well known."
At age 1′, Lowy had been living in a Prague orphanage for two years. It was there he first met Hirsch, who was in charge of all youth activities in Czechoslovakia while the country was under German occupation. In 1939, as the last transport to Palestine was about to leave, Hirsch and an associate knew they had a chance to get some of the children out of the country but not all. They flipped a coin, and Hirsch’s associate took what children he could on the last transport, leaving Hirsch in Prague to be sent to Theresienstadt to watch over the remaining children, including Lowy.
Hirsch spent two and a half years in Theresienstadt. He convinced the camp’s leaders to put him in charge of the youth, even going so far as to convince Adolf Eichmann to allow them to regularly play soccer. On Friday nights, Lowy recalled, Hirsch would spend time with different groups of children, singing Shabbat songs and doing what he could to keep their spirits up. "Above all, he tried to instill in us that we must be strong, stand up straight, be clean, and not afraid," Lowy said. "He was not afraid of the Germans."
After two and a half years, Hirsch was sent to Auschwitz, where he was once again put in charge of the family compound.
It was in Auschwitz that Hirsch eventually committed suicide. In March of 1944, some of the camp’s inmates planned a revolt but the Germans found out about it. The Nazis then instructed Hirsch to select 100 of the strongest boys for a work detail in Germany. Hirsch made his selection, but when the boys were herded on the trucks, they were taken instead to the gas chambers.
"He thought it would be a way for kids to get out of Auschwitz," Lowy said. "When he found out [the truth], he committed suicide."
As he listened to Lowy, Glasser couldn’t help but connect Hirsch to his own life. "As he told this story it was very humbling to think about my own role in youth work and the pressures I think to be so challenging," Glasser said. "And to think of somebody who did the exact same job in a ghetto and in Auschwitz and to be able to do that in those environments is something I’m in awe of."
For Melzer, Lowy represents a rebuttal to the Nazis. At last month’s tournament, Melzer spoke to 1’0 teens about what he learned of Hirsch at Yad Vashem, but he had no personal connection. Now, Melzer and Glasser hope Lowy will speak to the boys at next year’s tournament and make the abstract Hirsch into somebody the boys can identify with.
"He isn’t just a plaque on a wall anymore," Melzer said. "That’s what the Nazis were trying to do: make us into an exhibit in a museum. We can make [Hirsch] into a person again."