Benjamin Hirsch, author of Home Is Where You Find It
Benjamin Hirsch was born September 19, 1932 in Frankfurt am Main, German, just four months before Hitler came to power, and died February 11, 2018. He was the fifth of seven children of Dr. Hermann Hirsch, a dentist, and Mathilda Auerbach Hirsch. The mistreatment of Jews in Germany started long before Ben was born. He was still an infant when Hitler's first anti-Jewish laws went into effect in April, 1933, and was barely three years old when the Nuremberg Laws took away all the civil rights of German Jews. As a young boy, he felt the effects of this state-sponsored antisemitism. In fact, before he escaped Europe in 1941, he had never experienced life without prejudice and discrimination.
Ben vividly remembers witnessing the destruction and burning of his synagogue on Kristallnacht in November of 1938. He recalls hoodlums running in and out of the synagogue with Molotov cocktails (homemade explosive devices). He saw them take the Torah scrolls, and pierce the sacred parchment on the picket fence in front of the building. He and his 14 year-old cousin, Arno, stood across the street, along with more than one hundred other onlookers. Half of the crowd was shocked at what they were witnessing, and some were crying. The other half were cheering as if they were at a soccer game.
Later that day, Ben's father was arrested and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. His mother recognized the danger they were in and tried to find a way to send her five older children out of Germany until the threat passed. When she found out about a Kindertransport, a rescue mission for Jewish children between the ages of six and thirteen that was scheduled to leave for Paris, she signed her children up. Ben's sister, Flo, who was thirteen, was allowed to go along so she could take care of the younger children like Ben. During preparations for the trip, Ben noticed that his mother and older siblings were sad and often cried. This confused him because he thought a trip to Paris was an adventure. It never entered his mind that he would never see his parents or younger siblings again.
When the five Hirsch children arrived in Paris, Ben was separated from his siblings. His brothers went to live with a great-aunt. His sisters were taken in by an uncle. Ben was supposed to have been cared for by another uncle, but ended up being looked after by a neighbor of the uncle. During his stay with the Samuels family, Ben attended public school, learned to speak French, and quickly forgot German.
When the German Army attacked France, Ben was sent to the first of three OSE children's homes, Villa Helvetzia in Montmorency, a suburb of Paris. OSE was an organization which cared for Jewish children who were no longer under the care of their parents. His brothers and sisters were sent to other OSE homes. Just before the Germans reached Paris, the OSE homes in Montmorency were evacuated and Ben was sent to Chateau de Masgelier in Creuse, in the southern part of France not occupied by the Germans.
In May, 1941, Ben was told to board a bus for the city of Marseilles where he was to be reunited with his brothers and join an escape convoy of one hundred Jewish children sailing from Europe to America. In Marseilles, Ben developed stomach cramps from overindulging in the hot food lines. These cramps were misdiagnosed as appendicitis, which kept Ben from joining his brothers in the convoy. Instead, he was sent instead to an OSE home outside of Vichy, Chateau de Morrell, where his sisters were living.
Three months later, word came that the first escape convoy had arrived safely in New York, and that Ben and his sisters should go to Marseilles to join the next one. That voyage turned out to be the last one to sail to safety before the Nazis found out about the escape route and shut it down. Shortly thereafter, the children arrived in Lisbon, Portugal, where they waited for the S.S. Mouzinho to return from its first voyage to America and complete preparations for the second rescue trip. The group of fifty-four orphaned Jewish children joined other passengers, mostly Jewish families also hoping to escape from Europe, for the voyage. Fourteen days later, on Labor Day, September 1, 1941, the ship arrived in New York Harbor. Ben and his two sisters were then sent to Atlanta, where his two brothers were already living, and placed in foster homes. Ben was just nine years old.
Until he entered high school, Ben had to put up with bullies who picked fights with him, making fun of him for being a Jew and a foreigner. Initially, Ben wore a yarmulke (a religious head covering) to school. This was the last remaining symbol of his orthodox Jewish roots. However, pressure from a Jewish teacher and teasing by bullies convinced him to conform and give up the yarmulke. He still worked at maintaining the Shabbat observances (the Jewish Sabbath) and following the Kosher dietary laws, though.
Ben graduated from Hoke Smith High School, and although he was the top candidate for a Navy scholarship to Georgia Tech, he was disqualified because he was not yet a U. S. citizen. He spent a year working and then entered Georgia Tech's School of Architecture. After he had completed two years of the five-year program, Ben volunteered for the U. S. Army during the Korean Conflict. He had been too young for the Army during World War II, but he still wanted to serve the country that had taken him in and given him a new home.
While in the service, Ben maneuvered his way back to Germany, hoping to find his younger siblings, whom he was convinced were still alive. In 1947, he was told that his father had been killed by the Nazis in November of 1942, and that his mother, brother and sister had been seen in the fall of 1943 entering the gas chamber in Auschwitz. Nevertheless, he could not accept that the Nazis would murder his baby brother, Werner, and his little sister, Roselene. Shortly after arriving in Germany as a U.S. soldier, Ben realized that his search was futile. His siblings, along with his mother, had in fact been murdered by the Nazis. He recounts the details of his experiences in his book, Hearing A Different Drummer: A Holocaust Survivor's Search For Identity.
Today, Ben freely shares his experiences and memories of the Holocaust. Although he has done extensive research on what happened to his family after he left home in 1938, he is still searching for answers and trying to fill in the many blank spaces in their story. In 1965, he designed the award-winning Memorial To The Six Million at Greenwood Cemetery. In 1973, Ben searched for and found the Samuels family who had cared for him so long ago in France, and he has since been in contact with them. He also designed the Absence of Humanity: The Holocaust Years exhibit at The Breman Museum, where he is a frequent guest and speaker.
With the wisdom of one who has experienced both a brutal dictatorship and a strong democracy, Ben notes, "We are fortunate to live in a country that extols the principal of freedom for all of its citizens. Freedom is a valuable, but fragile right that is always in danger of being subverted. All of us must be wary of those who would limit our freedoms, yet we should take care not to abuse our freedoms to the point that our actions invite limitations upon them. Freedom must be cherished, respected and defended at all costs."