The first time, he imagines, he was nervous; but that was 83 years ago, so he doesn’t remember.
At any rate, Peter Hirschmann’s first bar mitzvah was in Nuremberg, and things were different then.
“All I got was a fountain pen,” he said.
The second time, on Masada with members of his synagogue, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun of Short Hills, Mr. Hirschmann, who lives in Maplewood now, remembers clearly. During a congregational visit to Israel, “the rabbi offered a bar or bat mitzvah to anyone who never had one. He offered me a second one because I was 83.” (Because the Torah says that a normal lifespan is 70 years, an 83-year-old can be considered 13 in a second lifetime.)
“I was better prepared the second time,” Mr. Hirschmann said. “Not nervous.” He feels that he was more immersed in his Jewishness the second time. “I was a learner the first time, and had become a full-grown Jew by the second time.” He attributes that to active membership in a synagogue.
At Masada, Mr. Hirschmann told everyone there that he intended to celebrate yet a third bar mitzvah, should he reach the age of 96.
He did — so he did.
Last Shabbat, in a service attended personally by children and grandchildren and streamed for many other friends and family members, Peter Hirschmann once again ascended the bimah and celebrated his Jewishness.
Mr. Hirschmann came to the United States in 1938, after Kristallnacht. “The night marked the end of Jewish life as we had known it,” he said; his synagogue was burned down during what came to be known as the Night of Broken Glass. He and his family settled in Newark, while those left behind, he said, all died in the camps.
Young Peter joined the U.S Army in 1943, only six years after coming to the country. A front-line solider at 18, the fought in the Battle of the Bulge as part of the 310th infantry of the 78th division. He was captured, became a prisoner of war and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp in Germany. He was liberated by the British in May 1945.
Did that experience have a major impact on his life? “It was a terrible experience,” he said. His his wife, Merle, added that Peter had entered the camp weighing 138 pounds; when he left, five months later, he weighed only 98. And December 1944 had been a particularly cold winter. And yet, his wife said, he appears to be “completely fine.” Although, she added, “there is a greater appreciation for food — he often has said ‘If only we had that in prison camp!’ — and for warmth. “
“We were constantly cold,” Mr. Hirschmann recalled. “There were double decker bunks with lice, covered with straw.”
“All they had was cold water, and no soap,” Ms. Hirschmann added. “They wore the same uniform for five months, dirt and all. If you took it off, you would be naked, and there was no change of clothes. It was unimaginable. He spoke to some youngsters here, some of whom probably change their clothes 12 times a day, and told them, imagine being 24/7 for five months covered with lice.
“And with no food.”
While religious belief may have helped him through difficult times, “I like to believe that you are who you are from start to finish,” Mr. Hirschmann said, crediting his parents for their positive influence on his life. “You’re impacted every day by more and more influences.” What did he think about in the prison camp? “My best recollection in that position is that you’re dug in, in the December of the coldest winter of all time, thinking of only one thing — how to get out of there, how to survive.”
“Peter’s story is unusual because he lived a very good life in Germany,” Ms. Hirschmann said. “His father was awarded the Iron Cross and his mother was a nurse in WW I, though it clearly didn’t matter. He fled a wonderful life.” Once here, she said, “his parents had to do menial things, but there was never a complaint. They were so grateful to be here.”
In June, Peter and Merle Hirschmann will have been married for 59 years. Self-described as a “Jersey City girl who grew up on the Jewish Standard,” Ms. Hirschmann was a teacher at the city’s Henry Snyder High School. Mr. Hirschmann went on to become a successful real estate broker involved in the sale and leasing of industrial properties. “He just retired on November 1, but you wouldn’t know it from the desk where he’s sitting,” Ms. Hirschmann said. “He continues to be involved. He’s worked every day for 76 years. He only retired because he’s responsible for two dozen people and just in case something should happen, it would be unfair to leave them with no one to supervise them.”
She keeps busy as well. “I’m heavily involved in volunteer work — at St. Barnabas, my synagogue, and UJA,” she said. “Our family created the Miracle Walk, to benefit the neonatal intensive care unit at St. Barnabas. In 20 years, we’ve raised about $6.4 million. We’re grateful we can be helping others. There’s a lot to be grateful for.”
She is excited by the prospect of her husband’s third bar mitzvah ceremony. “I think it is remarkable,” she said. “We’re so lucky, he’s in good health and ‘all there,’ sitting at his desk, where he has been working all morning. It’s very meaningful to him because of his involvement in the temple.
“When I grew up, at Beth El in Jersey City, I had a confirmation. My first bat mitzvah was on Masada, when Peter had his second. It was wonderful doing it up there, but I’m not doing more. I’ll leave that up to him. He’s excited and happy.”
Peter Hirschmann began his third bar mitzvah speech by saying that when he looks around now, he sees “beauty, peace, and what has become my second home, Temple Bnai Jeshurun.”
The synagogue’s rabbi, Matthew D. Gewirtz, who has been there for 15 years, probably is just as excited as Mr. Hirschmann. “I’ve known them from Day 1,” he said. “As a couple, they’re loving, devoted, generous, funny, patient, and have high expectations of others and of themselves. They believe in the power of community, especially the Jewish community.
“They genetically do the right thing. I adore them.”
The Hirschmanns have two grown children, Karen and Jonathan, and five grandchildren, Nicholas, Lauren, Melissa, Jessica, and Dani. Rabbi Gewirtz has performed life-cycle events for all three generations.
“If anyone has a reason to resent the world and humanity and the way the world unfolds, it’s him,” Rabbi Gewirtz said. “But he’s the opposite, the best humanity has to offer. He should be an angry human being”; instead, he believes that “everyone has a better side.”
“On our first trip to Israel, I really wanted to target those 50 and older,” Rabbi Gewirtz said. Because the synagogue is classic Reform, many of its older members had not celebrated becoming bnai mitzvah. In fact, that was true of 15 out of the 50-member group of travelers. “At 83, you can have another one,” Rabbi Gewirtz said. “Peter is so humble. He lived through so much. He said he’d like to have one.” With his gentle demeanor, “the only emotion he shows is a gregarious smile or tears. He doesn’t get nervous.”
For Mr. Hirschmann’s third bar mitzvah, “I wasn’t going to make him relearn how to layn,” Rabbi Gewirtz said. “He talked about the portion, offered a dvar Torah and commentary on his own history and Judaism.” The Hirschmanns “have become regular Shabbat-goers, participating in every program and class and two Israel trips. A real shul family, who became more connected to spirituality.”
While seniors often become less articulate with age, Rabbi Gewirtz said, “I don’t think Peter has ever repeated a story more than once. He was working full time until last month.” He hopes that his congregant will be here to bear witness for another few years. “We used to hear many survivors, but this is it. How long can it last?
There aren’t too many around like him. It’s important to me personally to soak in what he has to share. Most people don’t have the capacity to share what he does. The greater the accomplishment, the deeper the humility.”