The miracle of Holocaust survivor Henry Hirschmann

Another voice of the Holocaust has been stilled. This one belonged to my friend, Henry Hirschmann.

I first met Henry in the winter of 1994. “Schindler’s List” had just come out, the now-classic film recounting how German businessman Oskar Schindler saved more than a thousand Jews by employing them in his factory. I was The Charlotte Observer’s religion writer at the time. I am also Jewish. Our family lost distant relatives to Hitler. Thus inspired, I recruited three Charlotteans to watch the film with me and then talk about it over coffee: A teacher of the Holocaust, a Presbyterian churchgoer who served on a community relations committee, and Henry, who survived five months in the Nazis’ Buchenwald concentration camp.

Twenty-five years later, here’s what I remember most about that evening: Henry watched the 3¼-hour movie with a plastic bag on his lap. It was filled with photos and letters from his family in Germany. He wanted to introduce our group to his loved ones, since he was the only Hirschmann to survive.

So began our friendship.

We’d meet for lunch so he could tell me about plans for his latest trip to Germany. He’d sometimes travel alone, to revisit his roots. I tagged along as he shared his story with school and civic groups, the message cutting through his thick accent. It’s up to you to learn the lessons of the Holocaust, he’d tell his audience. It’s up to you to cleanse this hate-stained world with love and tolerance. He began as a source for a newspaper article, became a friend, then something of a grandfather figure to me.

With Henry, all you needed was plenty of time for him to tell his stories.

A decade ago, I interviewed Henry for a magazine story profiling 10 Holocaust survivors from Charlotte. His wife, Blanche, had died the year before. He seemed lost in his home near Shalom Park. A mountain of old mail, papers and photos were piled high on the kitchen table. He said he didn’t have the energy to go through it all. His answers meandered. He admitted to me that he was slipping, as were so many other Holocaust survivors. “Who knows how many more years are left for us to tell our stories?” he wondered aloud.

Henry died in his sleep on Oct. 17. He was 99. As his obituary shared, he survived imprisonment by the Nazis before making his way to New York in 1939. He settled in Charlotte in 1968, where he enjoyed a long career as a gifts and housewares salesman. The hours he must have spent kibitzing with merchants! Henry and Blanche raised two great children, doted on five grandchildren and couldn’t believe their good fortune when God gave them two beautiful great-granddaughters.

The Holocaust, of course, remained a shadow in his life, as it did in his obituary. It noted that he was preceded in death by his parents, Maier and Ida, and two younger brothers, Paul and Lothar. They all perished in the Holocaust, in Minsk. Or, as he told me years ago, “For some reason, they were schlepped to Russia.”

But this is the miracle of Henry and many other survivors: They learned to acknowledge their past but not let it strangle the life out of them. Henry raised a family, never lost his faith, enjoyed his career, laughed and prayed, all the while saying “Yes!” whenever a teacher asked him to speak to students. A photo that the family chose for Henry’s obituary says it better than I can. He’s leaning back in a chair, a smile (or is it a laugh?) lighting up his face, as if to say, “Life is good.” For my friend, Henry, who put the Holocaust behind him but never too far behind him, it was.

Charlotte’s Ken Garfield is a freelance writer, mostly for charitable causes. Reach him at garfieldken3129@gmail.com. Contributions in memory of Henry Hirschmann can be made to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2126 or at www.ushmm.org.