D-Day: A German Jew survives the Holocaust to fight the Nazis

dperlmutt@charlotteobserver.comJune 3, 2014 

  • This week

    Sunday: Walter Dickens, 95, of Monroe, Army medic

    Monday: Andy Andrews, 90, of Black Mountain, Army machine-gunner

    Tuesday: Helmut Deussen, 89, of Charlotte, German signal corps

    Wednesday: Henry Hirschmann, 93, of Charlotte, Holocaust survivor and Army artillery gunner

    Thursday: Harold Eatman, 98, of Matthews, Army paratrooper

  • About the series

    The Observer is commemorating the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion by sharing stories of Carolinians who survived the battles in Normandy, France. The stories are presented in the veterans’ own words and describe their experiences just before D-Day commenced. On Friday, the anniversary of the invasion, they and others will describe their experiences in the pivotal campaign.

His is a different war story, one of survival long before he got into World War II.

Henry Hirschmann was born a Jew in Grossauheim, Germany, in 1920, shortly after the end of World War I. Germany’s economy was in shambles and Hitler used his country’s vulnerabilities to rise to power in 1933.

“For the first few years, I didn’t feel the impact of his dictatorship,” said Hirschmann, now 93. “Then on Nov. 9 in 1938, I experienced one of the worst events of my life.”

It was called Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass – the night of Nazi violence that signaled the beginning of the Holocaust. The Nazis torched 200 synagogues, ransacked 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses and murdered scores of German and Austrian Jews. They rounded up 70,000 more Jews – mostly men – for the concentration camps.

They sent Hirschmann to Buchenwald, one of Germany’s first and largest concentration camps. But with sponsorship from an aunt and uncle in New York, they released him after six months.

He arrived in the Bronx in May 1939, four months before Hitler’s army invaded Poland, starting World War II. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, drawing America into the war, he ached to join the U.S. Army so he could return to Europe and fight the Germans. He got his chance in 1943, and a month after D-Day landed at Normandy, France, with an Army field artillery battalion loaded down with howitzers.

After the war, he became a part of the postwar occupation that led the rebuilding effort, first in Austria. But he asked for a transfer to Frankfurt, Germany, so he could search for his parents and two younger brothers.

Years later, he confirmed they all had died in the Holocaust.

Hirshmann returned to the United States in 1948 and settled in the Washington Heights community of New York. He went to work as a salesman of giftwares, a job that took him to the Carolinas selling to Belk and Ivey’s department stores.

Soon he met Blanche Weinstein and they married in 1951. Eight years later, they adopted two German children, a son, Paul, and daughter, Adina.

Hirschmann decided to work for himself and in 1968 the family moved to Charlotte so he could be closer to his larger customers.

He has spent the last two decades talking to students and groups about the Holocaust, often with Jesse Oxendine, a retired Charlotte pharmacist whose glider infantry regiment liberated a concentration camp on its way to Berlin near the war’s end.

Hirschmann is a grateful American. “Probably more grateful than many people born here,” he said, his German accent still strong.

That is why he’s made the trip to Normandy this week for 70th-anniversary ceremonies – to show his pride.

Henry Hirschmann

In his own words / As told to Staff Writer David Perlmutt

Before Kristallnacht, I had received an affidavit from my uncle and aunt, my mother’s only sister, who had immigrated to America and lived in the Bronx. The affidavit invited me to come to America. My aunt and uncle would be my sponsors.

But on Nov. 9, I was still living with my parents and working as an apprentice for a business firm in Frankfurt and I received a call from my mother. She told me, ‘Go visit your family in France or Holland.’ I didn’t have enough money and it was too far, so I decided not to go. I went home instead. What I found was total destruction. We lived over a business and it was in shambles. Windows broken out. Debris in the streets, stuff strewn all over. Upstairs, the first floor of our home was destroyed.

The police came for me and told my mother I had to go to the police station and I would return shortly. They took me to the county seat of Hanau, a railroad junction where there is a big Jewish population. There (Nazi troops) chased us through an underpass. They beat us with big sticks and guns. It was a horrible proposition to be chased and hit just because we were Jewish.

I was 18. I didn’t know what was going on, why they were doing this. They didn’t tell us. They put us on a train and after three or four hours we ended up at a place called Buchenwald, one of the most horrendous concentration camps ever built. The Nazis lined us up and forced us to stand. If anyone sat, they were hit with the butt end of a rifle.

They told us our names didn’t mean much anymore, we were just a number. Mine was 25340. One day, after about five months, they called for 25340 to report to the main office. My name had come through from the American consulate.

I was released and had to get a train to my hometown. When I got to my house, it was a horrible sight. My poor parents (Maier and Ida) and two younger brothers (Paul and Lothar) couldn’t get enough to eat. I cried at what I saw.

I left for America in May of 1939. My affidavit wasn’t strong enough for my whole family to come. It was the last time I saw my parents and brothers.

A few months after I arrived and settled with my aunt and uncle in the Bronx, Hitler invaded Poland. America didn’t get in at first. But after we did, I wanted to get into the war in the worst way. I wanted to join the U.S. Army so I could get even with those bastards (the Nazis). I was not taken. I was declared an ‘enemy alien’ because I was not a U.S. citizen.

In 1943, I was taken by the Army. I was originally assigned to the 104th Infantry Division and sent on a troop train with 500 guys across the country to Oregon to train. While I was in Oregon, I became a U.S. citizen. Without being a citizen they could not have sent me overseas – they knew eventually there would be a fight.

I was transferred to the 693rd Field Artillery and sent to Arizona. We trained on 105 mm howitzers. I was the aimer, the guy who aimed the guns.

On Lincoln’s birthday in 1944 (Feb. 12), we left from Camp Myles Standish near Boston on a U.S. Army transport ship (the Henry Gibbons) and on George Washington’s birthday (Feb. 22) we landed in Scotland. We were sent to Kington Camp (near Herefordshire).

We trained hard. We could tell something big was up. When you’re a GI, you don’t ask a lot of questions. You do what you’re told. And they didn’t tell us what that something was – or when or where.

On June 6, we heard about the invasion. Soon they made us move out of our barracks – the first casualties were coming in from D-Day and they had to find a place for them. We slept in tents.

In early July (July 9), we were ordered to the coast, to Southampton, a big port on the English Channel. They put us on two LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks).

None of us had ever experienced war. Suddenly this thing was real. We were scared – we could be the next casualties. We didn’t know what would be waiting on the other side of the English Channel.

But we had the seen the results and knew it was going to be bad.

Perlmutt: 704-358-5061

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