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    Fredy Hirsch and Jan Mautner: Love in a Time of Holocaust

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky–

    In Berlin’s Topography of Terror Museum, built upon the ruins of the building that housed many of the most infamous offices of Nazi evil, archivists and historians tell of the lives lost to the false science of racial and ethnic superiority. Some 15 million people in six years were murdered, with cruelty and without mercy, for who they were in life, and not for anything that they did. The number, overwhelming and stupefying, is also cold, distant and unfeeling. Numbers have no humanity. They have no faces.

    Alfred “Fredy” Hirsch had humanity. During morality’s darkest years he fought against barbarous, malevolent people and their murderous policies, devoting his life to the welfare and well-being of children. He worked to protect them from deliberate, overwhelming physical and emotional harm; to maintain their self-esteem against virulent bigotry; and to prepare them for a better life, however slim their possibility of survival became.

    Born in 1916 in Aachen, Charlemagne’s imperial city, Hirsch was a champion of physical fitness and an ardent Zionist from a young age. In his early teens, he joined the neighborhood Jewish youth association. Then, barely 15, he helped to found the local chapter of the Jewish Scouting Association of Germany (JDP).

    In 1933, the year the Nazis took power in Germany, the JDP became part of Maccabi Hatzair, a pioneering Zionist youth organization that combined Hirsch’s two passions. He relocated to Frankfurt to lead a scouting group there, which he did only briefly. Just 17, he became the subject of gossip that he might be gay. Although never accused of inappropriate behavior of misconduct, he moved to Dresden, where he worked with Maccabi Hatzair as a sports instructor.

    Life in Germany now became extremely difficult for the country’s minority communities, including Jews and homosexuals. Hirsch, of course, was both. On June 28, 1935, the fascists expanded the law against same-sex intimacy to include any act that “offended the general sense of shame;” courts, defining it as they pleased, could send gay men to prison simply for holding hands with each other. (California passed a similar statute in 1903, criminalizing conduct “that outraged public decency.”)

    Within three months, on September 15, the infamous Nuremberg Laws revoked the citizenship of Jewish and Roma people living under German authority, leaving them without civil or human rights. Hirsch fled to Czechoslovakia. He was 19.

    Hirsch applied for a job with Maccabi Hatzair in Prague, but the organization was reluctant to hire him until he convinced its leadership that his sexual orientation did not influence or affect his work in any way. Eventually, he settled in Brno, where he became a youth counselor and physical education coach, as well as an active member of HeHalutz, a Zionist youth association.

    Hirsch met Jan Mautner, known affectionally as Jenda, through Brno’s chapter of Maccabi Hatzair. Four years his senior, Mautner, who grew up in Moravia, was a medical student at Masaryk University. Although same-sex intimacy was illegal in Czechoslovakia too, the two men moved in together, living as openly as possible. People acquainted with them said later that they were well known as a couple.

    Hirsch, unfortunately, could not escape from the increasing horror of Nazism. On September 30,1938, fascist Germany annexed the Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia. Less than 6 months later, on March 15, 1939, it seized the rest of the country.
    While Mautner continued his studies in Brno, Hirsch returned to Prague, where he worked with Jewish youngsters who desired to immigrate to Palestine.

    As the new fascist government began revoking the rights of Czech Jews, Hirsch helped eighteen boys, aged 12–14, escape to Denmark; they reached their new homeland the next year. No one knew then that he had saved their lives.

    In 1940, after the Nazis closed Czechoslovakia’s universities, Mautner joined Hirsch in Prague, where they continued their life together. Now both worked full-time to assist Jewish youth. When Jews were banned from other public spaces, Hirsch created a playground at Hagibor, in the city’s Strašnice municipal district, where he and Mautner organized physical fitness classes, soccer matches and athletic competitions. (In 1944, it became the location of a forced-labor camp for people from so-called “mixed marriages.”)

    The next year, the Nazis began systematically deporting Prague’s Jewish residents, first to the Litzmannstadt Ghetto in Poland, and then to Theresienstadt, a transit camp for Czech Jews destined for the killing centers of eastern Europe. Hirsch was one of the first to be sent there, arriving on December 4, 1941.

    At Theresienstadt, Hirsch realized early on that the best chance for the children to survive was by maintaining their health and self-esteem with structure: strict hygiene and grooming, classroom lessons and regular exercise. All of these had been forbidden to them, but he convinced their captors that his efforts to better the children’s lives helped to maintain order, so they mostly let him be.

    In October 1943, after 22 months in Theresienstadt, the Nazis sent Hirsch and the children he supervised to the death camp at Auschwitz. Following his guidelines with the youth he chaperoned in the family block there, he eased their suffering somewhat and reduced their immediate mortality rate almost to zero. Ultimately, however, almost all perished, including Hirsch, who was driven to the gas chambers and murdered with them on March 8, 1944. He was 28 years old.

    Mautner survived the Nazi atrocities against him. He was deported to Auschwitz in December 1943, two months after Hirsch had been sent there, but probably they never saw each other again. In 1944, he was moved to Schwarzheide, a slave labor camp. The next year, ahead of advancing Soviet troops, he was forced into a death march back toward Theresienstadt. He was among the very few who reached the ghetto alive.

    After the war, Mautner completed his medical studies, worked as a physician and found love with Walter Löwy, a pharmacist. He died in Prague on September 2, 1951, only 38 years old, of the tuberculosis he contracted in the concentration camps. Five years after the conflagration ended, the Holocaust claimed yet another victim.

    After peace returned, the world hoped that the vicious, deadly xenophobia, homophobia and anti-semitism of the Nazis would follow them onto the dustheap of history. Sadly they remain among the evils that die not, but lurk always in the shadows. As Aldous Huxley cautioned, “The price of liberty, and even of common humanity, is eternal vigilance.”

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.