For many years Joseph Hirt, 91, would go around schools, academic institutions and other lecture venues to talk about his experiences from Auschwitz, the Nazi extermination camp.
Thousands of listeners sat glued to their seats hearing about the horrifying experiences Hirt and the other inmates went through, and he became one of the most popular Holocaust lecturers. It now turns out that his stories were invented.
This week the Pennsylvania native sent a 15-page letter to the American press, in which he confesses that he never was a prisoner in Auschwitz, and all of his talks used material that he had read from various sources. "I am writing today to apologize publicly for the damage I have caused by my descriptions of life at Auschwitz. I wasn't an inmate there. I never meant to take away from the importance of all the real events by falsely claiming that I was involved in them," wrote Hirt.
Suspicions of Hirt's story first came up several weeks ago. In the course of a lecture in New York showed a visual representation telling the story of his escape from Auschwitz-Birkenau. One of the guests at the lecture was a historian named Andrew Reed, who suspected that the story was false due to some historical inaccuracies. After investigating the matter and determining that Hirt's story cannot be true, Reed sent a 25-page letter to the press and to institutions who had hosted lectures by Hirt, claiming that "the 91-year old Holocaust survivor is an impostor."
After being thus exposed, Hirt admitted that he had indeed invented his involvement in the stories and had misled thousands of people–who often left his lectures moved to tears–for many years. Hirt sent a letter of apology to Reed, the historian, in which he explained that after reading the memoirs of Primo Levi–a Holocaust survivor who became a prominent historian and public intellectual–he was very moved and had Levi's number from Auschwitz–174517, tattooed on his arm. He then used Levi's story and presented it as his own. "In order to commemorate Primo Levi's life and remind myself of his influence on my ways of thinking, I had his camp number tattooed on my left arm. I didn't mean to steal his identity at the time, I just wanted to remember him," Hirt wrote in his public letter.