David Hersch escaped not once, but twice, from a death march from Mauthausen when he was a 5-foot-10-inch teenager weighing just 80 pounds.
Years after he died in his 70s in 2001, his son Jack traveled to Mauthausen, located in Austria, to retrace his father’s steps. That journey provided some insight into what and how his father survived, yielded new details Jack had never known, and at the same time, raised new questions that will probably never be answered.
On Feb. 6, Hersch shared his father’s story and some of his own revelations with about 175 students, mostly juniors and seniors, at Morristown High School. His book, “Death March Escape: The Remarkable Story of a Man Who Twice Escaped the Nazi Holocaust” (Frontline Books), was published this month. The personal dimensions of his talk provided depth and color for the students’ Holocaust studies, but it also revealed the impact of survival on subsequent generations.
Although the book and last week’s talk both describe in detail the two escapes as well as Jack’s documentation of what happened, his father’s is a tale of loss and horror.
Jack, 60, of Manhattan, an expert on working with distressed companies, knows the details of his father’s story well, having heard it every year at his family’s Passover seder.
David Hersch and his extended family lived in Dej, Hungary. In May 1944 they were forced to move to a ghetto, and in June of that year they were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where most of his family members were immediately killed.
David was sent to Mauthausen (and its subcamps, Gusen 1 and 2), where he worked in a granite quarry for 10 months, dropping from 160 to 80 pounds. In April 1945, he went on his first death march to Gunskirchen, 34 miles away. He was straggling at an intersection where a large group of refugees were also walking.
“All of a sudden my father realizes that he’s caught up in the refugees,” recounted Jack to the students. “If he just goes another 10 or 15 yards …
he would get to join the rest of the marchers or he could just turn. Maybe nobody will notice. He turned and he took two steps and he found a raincoat” on the ground, which he put on over his prison uniform and continued walking with the refugees.
He made it to an apartment where he knocked on the door “and says to the woman in fluent German, ‘I’m hungry, can you feed me?’” She invited him in and gave him cheese and noodles and sent him to her backyard. Unfortunately, when she urged him to leave 20 minutes later, he decided to take a few more minutes to rest in the sunshine. She returned with two SS officers.
When asked who he was he made the choice to respond in Yiddish even though he spoke nine languages. The officers brought him to the local police station where the person in charge, who outranked the SS officers, was sympathetic. He let Hersch stay in the jail cell bed for the night and brought hot food for him to eat. The next day, he was returned to Mauthausen without repercussions.
About a week later, on a second march, he escaped again and this time was hidden by a family in the town of Kristein, on the outskirts of Enns, until he was liberated.
While the talk focused mostly on David’s story, Jack’s book interweaves his father’s miraculous story with historical context and first-person descriptions of retracing his experience.
Sometimes just a simple observation in the book captures the distance of a few decades.
“Driving the local roads, I am surprised by how pretty everything is, colorful farm fields and immaculate houses all around me … I wasn’t expecting such a pretty landscape. The truth is, I can’t fathom anything pretty given why I’m here today…” Jack wrote, about driving to Mauthausen.
Jack described his shock (to the students, and in the book) at arriving to the area that was once the Gusen subcamps of Mauthausen where his father lived, and seeing that the buildings had been torn down, unpreserved. “Where Gusen 2 once was, now are small, pretty homes and quiet suburban streets,” he wrote. “It is as if the notoriously brutal concentration camp that imprisoned my father for three weeks never existed.”
Moreover, he finds at Mauthausen that the administrative offices of the camp, where prisoners were tortured in the basement, was still standing and had become home to an upper-middle-class family.
As Jack retraced his father’s steps, he said he constantly asked himself if he could have made the same choices. “Standing on the street, by what might have been the old woman’s home, I appreciate the outrageous, boldness of my father’s actions more than ever,” he wrote. “And I wonder mightily if I would have been that bold, if I would have made that turn.”
Such thoughts have haunted Jack throughout his life. He shared with the students that he is always trying to test himself, pushing himself with challenging activities: flying planes, mastering and teaching an obscure form of karate, running marathons, cycling 70 miles a day, and playing sports. But he also understands there is no way to know.
“Why do I do all this stuff? I think the answer is because my dad did the impossible,” Jack said. “He escaped from a concentration camp twice. How do I do anything that equals what my dad did?”