By Marion Filler
Hitler’s concentration camps were a one-way ticket for six million Jews. A lucky few escaped. One man escaped twice.
David Hersch was imprisoned as a teenager in the Mauthausen camp in Austria in June 1944. How he escaped two death marches was described to Morristown High School students this week by Hersch’s son, Jack Hersch, author of Death March Escape.
It’s the story of an indomitable spirit who refused to surrender hope in the face of almost certain death.
“People hear the word survivor and they get this picture in their head: Elie Weisel. Morose. Never cracked a smile. Never told a joke. My dad, he wasn’t like that,” Jack Hersch told students from teacher Scott Hansen’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies class.
“He was a funny, curious, life-of-the-party guy and he was always like that before the war and after. It’s important that people know that type of survivor exists,” Jack, 60, said of his father, who died in 2001 on Long Island.
Mauthausen was near a quarry where prisoners were worked to death excavating granite. Jack, a Columbia-educated businessman in New York, visited the scene to research his book.
His Morristown High presentation included photographs of his father, pictures of the tent camp at Mauthausen and the quarry where he worked, and what remains there.
Two places, Jack said, were especially painful to visit. The administration building where decisions were made about who should live or die is a private home now. The entrance to the processing area also was haunting.
Video: Escaping the Nazis twice in WWII:
“When I looked up at this building and walked around and entered it, I knew my dad walked on the same ground in wooden Nazi shoes, or barefoot as a slave. That was my first sense of anger.”
Asking all students between 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-11 to stand, Jack observed that no one weighed less than 100 pounds. David, his father, was about the same height but weighed only 75 pounds when he made his first escape as a 19-year-old in the spring of 1945.
David and other prisoners were being marched to their death when they ran into a group of refugees at an intersection. Suddenly, the line stopped.
“Now he is in the intersection and realizes that if he just turns in another direction, maybe no one will notice,” Jack recounted.
David found a raincoat and put it on to cover the prison uniform. “He goes about 100 yards, the street narrows, and there are doors where people live. He knocks on a door.”
An old woman answered. Fluent in eight languages, David told her, in German: “I’m hungry, can you feed me?”
After feeding him noodles and cheese, the woman alerted two young Hungarian S.S. soldiers. They took him to the local gendarmerie, as the police station was called.
The sergeant in charge, an older man, outranked the S.S., and upon questioning the prisoner, learned that David’s father–Jack’s grandfather– served in the Austrian cavalry. This resonated with the officer. David was fed, sheltered for the night, and escorted back to Mauthausen instead of being returned to the death march.
One week later, however, there was another march. This one occurred at dusk, in the rain. David was in worse shape than before; he had not eaten since his return.
He passed the same intersection, walked another mile…and was too exhausted to continue.
“There was a rule in these marches, if you went to the side of the road and sat down, they shot you,” Jack said.
Shocked by cold steel pressed to his neck, David jumped up and managed to keep going until three S.S. guards turned their backs for a moment. Seeing a path on the side of the road, David bolted. No one saw him flee.
This time, he got lucky. After spending the night in the woods, David was befriended by an Austrian couple, the Friedmanns. They sheltered him in their barn for several weeks until the Allies arrived.
David’s extended family of 25 included four brothers and four sisters. Of that group, 18 died in the Holocaust. One brother and three sisters perished.
For 18 months after liberation, David was hospitalized. He moved to Israel in 1947 and emigrated to the United States in 1958. Though he repeated his life story at Passover Seders, many aspects were left to explore.
When his picture appeared on the Mauthausen memorial website in 2007, the family was mystified. And so began his son’s odyssey, culminating in the book.
Video: A photo starts an odyssey:
What kept David Hersch going when all seemed lost? Students were curious at the end of Wednesday’s 80-minute talk.
“He had an internal drive to keep alive. He had this wire that said, ‘I’m not quitting. I’m not giving in and you’re not winning,'” Jack said.
An adult in the audience questioned whether one can forgive such atrocities and not seek revenge. “How does that get reconciled?” the woman inquired.
“I don’t think it does,” Jack replied.
“For most of my life, my father hated Germans and Germany. When I walked the grounds where he had been, my first reaction was anger.
“As my father aged, he mellowed. And when he was in his mid 70s, he decided the next generation was not responsible for what had happened.”