Survivor STORY

Benjamin Hirsch was born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in 1932. In December, 1938, less than one month after Kristallnacht, when his father was arrested and sent to Buchenwald, Ben’s mother sent him and four older siblings on a Kindertransport to Paris, France.

The five older Hirsch children, who ranged in age from six to thirteen, survived in a French Jewish network of children’s homes (O.S.E.) that moved them clandestinely throughout France, keeping one step ahead of the advancing Nazi forces. His two older brothers, Jack and Asher, escaped from Europe and arrived in New York in June, 1941, and soon made their way to Atlanta to be near a cousin of their mother, who was a rabbi in Rome, Georgia. Three months later, Ben and his two older sisters, Sarah (Hirsch Shartar) and Flora (Hirsch Spiegel), traveled the same escape route and arrived in New York on September 2, 1941.

The Hirsch siblings made their home in Atlanta under the sponsorship of the Jewish Children’s Service, an organization under the umbrella of the Jewish Welfare Board. After the war, the Hirsch children found out that their parents and younger brother and sister had been murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Ben served in the U.S. Army from 1953–55, and has written a book that has earned critical acclaim, Hearing a Different Drummer: a Holocaust Survivor’s Search for Identity, describing his experiences as an enlisted man serving in Germany during the Korean Conflict. He went on to graduate from the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Architecture in 1958 and is a practicing architect, whose firm designs commercial, industrial, institutional and residential projects locally and specializes on a national level in the design of synagogues and churches.

Ben has received three national design awards in the field of religious architecture, for the Memorial to the Six Million in Atlanta, the second Holocaust memorial built in the United States; for Congregation Or VeShalom in Atlanta; and for his design for Synagogue Emanu-El in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1996, Ben received an award for Excellence in Design from DeKalb County here in the Atlanta area for the Lobby and Entrance Addition to Congregation Beth Jacob. He also designed the Zachor Holocaust Center at the Midtown Atlanta Jewish Community Center, which no longer exists, and was the design architect, concept developer and exhibit designer for the gallery Absence of Humanity: the Holocaust Years in The William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum.

In March 1997, Ben stepped down after serving for fourteen years as president of Eternal Life-Hemshech, the Organization of Holocaust Survivors, Second and Future Generations Living in the Metro-Atlanta Area. He is a past president of Congregation Beth Jacob and Yeshiva High School in Atlanta and has served on the board of trustees of several organizations in the Atlanta Jewish community. He speaks to many school and adult groups as a personal witness to, and student of, the Holocaust and has written guest editorials and letters to the editor on issues of special interest and concern to Holocaust survivors.

Ben married Jacqueline Robkin in March, 1959, and they have four children, Shoshanah Selavan, who lives in Israel; Adina Chaya Hirsch, who lives in Atlanta; Michal Apelbaum, who lives in Israel; and a son, Raphael, who also lives in Atlanta. Ben and Jacqueline have eighteen grandchildren, eleven in Israel and seven in Atlanta.

Coming to America

On September 2nd, the day after Labor Day, we got off the boat and were greeted by a social worker. I still remember the kind young man that was in charge of me, and he asked me what do I want. Anything, I could have anything I want, and all I could think of was bubblegum. I had heard of bubblegum and had never had any, so he got me some bubblegum. And he told me I was a cheap date. I had some anticipations when I got here – I was expecting, I truly was expecting to see the streets paved in gold, which didn’t happen, and I was expecting to see Franklin Delano Roosevelt come riding by on his white horse, which also didn’t happen.

Coming to America

On September 2nd, the day after Labor Day, we got off the boat and were greeted by a social worker. I still remember the kind young man that was in charge of me, and he asked me, what do I want. Anything, I could have anything I want, and all I could think of was bubblegum. I had heard of bubblegum and had never had any, so he got me some bubblegum. And he told me I was a cheap date. I had some anticipations when I got here – I was expecting, I truly was expecting to see the streets paved in gold, which didn’t happen, and I was expecting to see Franklin Delano Roosevelt come riding by on his white horse, which also didn’t happen.

Separation From and Finding Family

But…it was an interesting feeling, finally finding out, you know, that you were in fact an orphan, that your mom and dad are dead, that you don’t have any parents. I tried to compensate, in some strange ways. I would tell myself, and sometimes even tell my friends, that I was luckier than they were because they’re going to have to live through their parents dying, and I’ve already passed that. And I got myself to believe it. I got myself to believe that that was, that I was one of the fortunate few. The really weird, weird thing is that, back in 1991, when I attended the first Hidden Child Conference and sat in a session with a lot of other people my age who had been children during the Holocaust, who had been hidden with a family somewhere by their parents. And later, their parents came back, and that their life, they felt, was very traumatic because of the things that their parents had gone through, and that how they were related to each other. And I left that meeting where everybody was telling me that I was the lucky one, because I didn’t have to go through that, and…that still blows me away. But it’s, growing up in Atlanta – growing up anywhere, I imagine – but in the situation that I was in, at first not knowing what the situation was with my family, if I were, if I was going to get together. But never really having a nurturing parent, somebody that you knew you could rely on, not just to discipline you but to also hear what your fears are and live through your travails…it’s pretty tough.

From a Child’s Perspective

Well, we have to go back, actually, to being in Europe, because, you know, when we got to France and were no longer with parents, I was no longer with siblings either, at least for almost three years, being all by myself. So when I finally got back together with my siblings, it was like, it was almost like I wasn’t there, like I wasn’t…I mean, I never knew anything about any relatives that we had. I never knew anything about what was going on with our parents. I mean, I have the letters that my mother wrote us and my father wrote us now, but I never saw them when I was a kid. I was just totally out of the loop. You know, there were, I guess they wanted me to grow up and be a normal kid. But that, and plus the fact that I was a child and the fact that I was never in a concentration camp, and always whenever somebody talks about, well, somebody survived the Holocaust, “Well, what camp were you in?” As if that were the only category that existed. And I was convinced, I was convinced that if you’re not in a camp, you’re not a survivor of the Holocaust; it’s as simple as that. You’re just a person that happened to have been there. So even though I called myself a survivor when I talked to them about designing the memorial, I never really felt that I had a story to tell, as a survivor.

Judaism and Jewishness

One of the things it is important to talk about is my relationship to Judaism, to the observance of the religion. When I came to this country, I was as observant as I could remember – I used to daven [pray] every day and wear a kippah [head covering] all the time, and I used to keep Shabbat. That was all I knew. As time went on and as I became one of the boys and wanted to be like everybody else was, then things went by the wayside. By the time that I was 15, 16 or so years old I was already no longer being Sabbath observant, because I was working on the Sabbath. Probably by the time I was 17, 18, 19, I got away from keeping kosher. I found no problem with going out and seeing who could eat the most Krystal hamburgers at one time. I had no problem with that. My brother Asher had a big problem with that. And my brother Jack and I saw the world the same way, in that we both agreed that religion was a divisive factor in the world. It had no part in our lives to speak of. Then I went into the Army, and while I was in the Army the observant, Christian soldiers would seek me out. And there were other Jewish guys in the outfits always, but they always sought me out for some reason to ask me questions about Judaism. I was fairly knowledgeable about Judaism, but I also realized that I didn't know the answers, so I faked it, but I knew that I faked it. And I got the feeling bad about it after a while, you know. I got to thinking that here my parents and my brother and sister were killed because they were Jews, and I'm giving up Judaism in a sense, at least an element of it without even knowing what the hell I'm giving up. I didn't even know the answers to all these questions. I could daven, I could lead the services, but that didn't mean anything. I didn't know what Judaism was all about. So I made a vow to myself while I was in the Army – “When I get out of this mess, I'm going to start delving into Judaism to the point that I'm going to know what it is, what it's all about, and if I decide I'm going to give it up, once I know what it is, I’ll have the right to do that, but I really don't feel that I have the right to do that until I know what it is. And that had a tremendous effect on me.

Remembering and Legacy

But Yoni [Yoni Wertzberg, who was then the director of BBYO, B’nai B’rith Youth Organization], Yoni got me to thinking, got me realizing that, as time went on, I realized that…I didn’t need to be a textbook for the kids, that if somebody wants to hear about the Holocaust, or they read about the Holocaust, books were coming out. And in the early’60s there weren’t many books out. But by the time the ‘70s got around, there were a lot of books around that people could read and find out the details about what went on. What they needed to see and to hear was somebody talking about their own experiences, how they were affected, that they were individuals and that what happened in the Holocaust was not to a bunch of numbers but to individual people. And here we are, that’s what we’re doing today. It has a lot to do with the way our museum is designed because, you know, it’s, when…Going back to that weekend, when I was showing those kids around the…These were 15-year-old, 16-, 17-year-old kids. And we talked about the Memorial [the Memorial to the Six Million, designed by Ben Hirsch], we talked about how it was designed, we talked about the fact that we have a wall in there which is a Wall of Remembrance, in a way, and that this was where people had plaques about, that related to their families. And this was the only place where people could come to say Kaddish [prayer said when in mourning], because they don’t know where the graves of these people are. And that had a big effect on them, theoretically. It sounded like, you know, neat. But then, when they started walking around on their own and they spent most of their time on that wall, looking around there, and they said, “I know them! I know them! I know those people!” and like that. And they realized that, you know, you can talk about six million, you can talk about six hundred thousand, but it’s when you get that connection with one person, that’s when you’ve really told the story.

Judaism and Jewishness

One of the things it is important to talk about is my relationship to Judaism, to the observance of the religion. When I came to this country, I was as observant as I could remember – I used to daven [pray] every day and wear a kippah [head covering] all the time, and I used to keep Shabbat. That was all I knew. As time went on and as I became one of the boys and wanted to be like everybody else was, then things went by the wayside. By the time that I was 15, 16 or so years old I was already no longer being Sabbath observant, because I was working on the Sabbath. Probably by the time I was 17, 18, 19, I got away from keeping kosher. I found no problem with going out and seeing who could eat the most Krystal hamburgers at one time. I had no problem with that. My brother Asher had a big problem with that. And my brother Jack and I saw the world the same way, in that we both agreed that religion was a divisive factor in the world. It had no part in our lives to speak of. Then I went into the Army, and while I was in the Army the observant, Christian soldiers would seek me out. And there were other Jewish guys in the outfits always, but they always sought me out for some reason to ask me questions about Judaism. I was fairly knowledgeable about Judaism, but I also realized that I didn't know the answers, so I faked it, but I knew that I faked it. And I got the feeling bad about it after a while, you know, I got to thinking that here my parents and my brother and sister were killed because they were Jews, and I'm giving up Judaism in a sense, at least an element of it without even knowing what the hell I'm giving up. I didn't even know the answers to all these questions. I could daven, I could lead the services, but that didn't mean anything. I didn't know what Judaism was all about. So I made a vow to myself while I was in the Army – “When I get out of this mess, I'm going to start delving into Judaism to the point that I'm going to know what it is, what it's all about, and if I decide I'm going to give it up, once I know what it is, I’ll have the right to do that, but I really don't feel that I have the right to do that until I know what it is. And that had a tremendous effect on me.

Benjamin Hirsch