Joseph Hirt said he fabricated story of being sent to camp and meeting Nazi doctor Josef Mengele to ‘keep memories alive’ about history of the Holocaust
A Pennsylvania man who claimed for years to have escaped from Auschwitz, met track and field star Jesse Owens and Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, confessed on Friday that he had fabricated the entire story.
“I am writing today to apologize publicly for harm caused to anyone because of my inserting myself into the descriptions of life in Auschwitz,” Joseph Hirt, 86, wrote in a letter sent to his local paper, LNP, this week.
“I was not a prisoner there. I did not intend to lessen or overshadow the events which truly happened there by falsely claiming to have been personally involved.”
“I was wrong. I ask forgiveness,” he added. “I determined at that moment to do everything in my power to prevent the loss of the truth about wartime life (and death) at Auschwitz.”
For years, Hirt gave public speeches at schools around the US about his experiences in the second world war, including his Jewish family’s flight from Poland to Belgrade.
But he also told people that he was arrested by the Nazis, sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, and met Mengele, the SS physician who tortured prisoners of the concentration camp.
Hirt claimed to have escaped under an electric fence at the camp.
He added an extraordinary prologue and epilogue to the story, saying that he saw Adolf Hitler turn his back on Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and that he met Eleanor Roosevelt and Owens after his arrival in the United States.
Earlier this year, New York history teacher Andrew Reid became suspicious of Hirt’s story and wrote a refutation of many of Hirt’s points.
The names of concentration camp victims and survivors are publicly available, and there is no record of Hirt at Auschwitz or elsewhere.
Hirt (showing his fake tattoo in the photo above) admitted in his letter that he had tattooed the camp number of Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, the acclaimed author and chemist, on his left forearm:
“In no way an attempt to take on his identity, but in an effort to incorporate his symbol as a way of remembering him.”
Reid also found that Hirt’s escape story did not fit with camp records, that Mengele did not arrive at the camp until after the alleged escape, and other lies, errors and far-fetched claims in Hirt’s account.
He was a six-year-old Polish boy and extraordinarily unlikely to be anywhere near Hitler at the Olympics, for instance, and Owens’ biographer found the snub was likely a fabrication, possibly conflated with another black sprinter’s story.
Hirt is not the first to fabricate or exaggerate a Holocaust story. Herman Rosenblat, a Polish survivor, embellished his 1993 memoir and made up some parts entirely.
At the time, historian Ken Waltzer wrote in the New Republic that he was alarmed by how quickly people accepted the story.