ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 148

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'The most moving screening I've ever had'

An Israeli city nixed an LGBTQ Holocaust docu showing; residents screened it instead

Harish was meant to show ‘Dear Fredy,’ the story of an openly gay Jewish man who saved kids in Auschwitz, for Holocaust Remembrance Day, but called it off due to Haredi objections

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Fredy Hirsch, a gay German Jew who saved children in the Holocaust, is seen smiling in an undated photograph. (Beit Terezin Archive)
Fredy Hirsch, a gay German Jew who saved children in the Holocaust, is seen smiling in an undated photograph. (Beit Terezin Archive)

The northern city of Harish canceled the screening of a Holocaust documentary that was meant to be held in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day on Thursday night because the film’s subject, Alfred Hirsch, a German Jew who saved children in Auschwitz, was openly gay.

After it became known that it was canceled due to objections by ultra-Orthodox community leaders in the city, other residents then banded together to stage their own showing of the acclaimed documentary.

The film’s director, Rubi Gat, said the municipality contacted him months ago to organize a screening of his 2017 documentary, “Dear Fredy.” They had set a location and date — Thursday, January 26, the evening before the start of International Holocaust Remembrance Day — and Gat had even approved promotional materials for the event.

Suddenly, 10 days before the event, the head of Harish’s youth services called Gat and told him they had to call off the event.

During the call, which Gat recorded, she told him that it was because of “a fuss” within the municipality, that there had been “explosions” between different officials in city hall.

She explained that the cancelation of his screening was part of a broad cancelation of LGBTQ-focused events in the city due to opposition from Haredi leaders.

“There’s a crisis about the [LGBTQ] program in general because we’re a mixed city and it’s a new program and a new city,” she told Gat, referring to the secular and religious communities that share the city.

He asked her explicitly if it was because of “LGBT-phobia,” and she confirmed it.

“At first I was shocked. The next day, I was just depressed. But the day after that, I said to myself, ‘This isn’t right. If I’m silent about this, then this kind of thing will keep happening.’ They told me explicitly that this was because it was ‘LGBT,’ that they had to do some rethinking, but maybe in a few more years they can do a screening,” Gat told The Times of Israel on Thursday night.

After deciding it was unacceptable that the screening was canceled, Gat brought the matter to public light, speaking to Channel 13, Channel 12 and the Haaretz newspaper.

When a Harish resident, Nitzan Avivi, heard about the cancelation, he decided to organize a private screening of the documentary. Avivi, a musician and community organizer, had access to a projector and sound system and found a friend who had a space where they could hold the event. He reached out to Gat, who said he’d be thrilled to attend, and then put the word out in various WhatsApp groups he manages and on Facebook.

In the end, more than 60 people crammed into ShiraDance, a local dance studio, to watch the film, which was introduced by Gat.

“I have no doubt that this will be the most moving screening I’ve ever had,” Gat told the audience on Thursday night.

‘Dear Fredy’ director Rubi Gat speaks to a crowd at a screening of his film in the northern city of Harish on January 27, 2023. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The municipality has since tried to claim that the cancellation was not because of the film’s LGBTQ content but because there “wasn’t a demand” for the screening. This was, however, belied by the fact that the event was canceled before the city began publicizing it, making it unclear how it could know in advance that people wouldn’t be interested.

Harish vice mayor Idit Entov, who attended the screening on Thursday night and who tried to get the city to go back on its decision to cancel the event, confirmed to Gat that despite the city’s claims, the decision to scrap the screening was indeed made because of the film’s LGBTQ content and opposition from the city’s ultra-Orthodox constituents.

“It’s an amazing film, and I’m glad that at least it was shown in Harish in the end,” Entov said.

Harish, a relatively newly built city, was initially planned to primarily serve Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population. After a High Court case, the city was forced to open itself to Israelis of all stripes, though significant tensions still linger between its secular and religious residents, and sometimes bubble to the surface, like in the fight over “Dear Fredy.”

In his opening remarks, Gat lamented that his film became the center of such controversy and debate, believing it sowed division in Israeli society and only detracted from the story of its subject, Fredy Hirsch.

‘Dear Fredy’

The film, “Dear Fredy,” relies on interviews with Holocaust survivors who knew him, animation, archival footage and photography to tell the eponymous subject’s life and tragic death over the course of 74 minutes.

The documentary begins with Hirsch’s childhood in Germany and his involvement in Zionist and Jewish sporting groups, notably Maccabi. As the Nazis rose to power, Hirsch’s family fled the country, moving to Bolivia. Hoping to eventually immigrate to Palestine, Fredy moved to Prague in 1935.

Tall, lean and muscular — and with his hair always meticulously coiffed, even in Auschwitz — Hirsch was a firm believer in so-called “Muscular Judaism,” a Zionist notion that through building muscles, Jews would rebuild themselves as a new people. While living in then-Czechoslovakia, he continued to lead Maccabi activities even as the Nazis took over the country.

Fredy Hirsch, a gay German Jew who saved children in the Holocaust, is seen performing calisthenics in an undated photograph. (Docs for Education)

Hirsch’s homosexuality was common knowledge and people who knew him at the time and who were interviewed by Gat for the film said there were rumors about him and occasional disparaging comments about how boys shouldn’t be alone with him. At the same time, it didn’t prevent him from leading Jewish sporting camps or becoming a beloved figure in the community, the interviewees said.

In 1941, Hirsch was in one of the first groups of Jews to be deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto. There he became the deputy supervisor of children, organizing educational activities and sporting events for them.

Hirsch, a fluent German speaker, was also able to convince the SS to provide better conditions for the children. Though this was not definitively proven, the documentary also indicates that Hirsch likely had sexual relationships with homosexual German soldiers, giving him greater influence and access to useful information in the ghetto, which he used to help the children under his care.

In 1943, Hirsch was even able to convince the Nazis to allow him to organize Maccabiah games in the ghetto for the children, which were attended by thousands of people, raising morale.

In September of that year, he was deported to Auschwitz along with others from Theresienstadt, though they were given privileged status and put into what was called the Terezin Family Camp, where they were allowed to keep their civilian clothes and were not forced to have their heads shaved, though they were tattooed. (This was later found to have been done in order to keep a healthier population on hand should a Red Cross delegation come to inspect the camp.)

In Auschwitz as well, Hirsch was put in charge of children, being named supervisor of the children’s block. He convinced the infamous, sadistic Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele, who performed horrific medical experiments on Jews, to allocate additional rations for the children. He also obtained a second barracks for the children and improved their conditions. To lift the children’s spirits, he had an artist — Dina Gottliebová — paint scenes from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on the barrack walls.

Hirsch demanded that the 600 children who were in his care abide by strict hygiene and cleanliness standards in the camp, requiring them to wash regularly — even in the freezing cold — and to inspect themselves for lice. Survivors credited this with saving the lives of many of the children as it both helped keep them physically healthier and made them appear healthier during the Nazis’ “selections,” in which those who appeared ill or weak would be sent to be murdered.

While people died regularly from hunger and disease in other parts of the family camp, the children’s block had a near-zero mortality rate, which has largely been credited to Hirsch.

However, those efforts were ultimately for naught. After several months in Auschwitz, Hirsch was informed by resistance fighters that the occupants of the family camp were due to be “liquated” — gassed to death and burned in crematoria — in March 1944. Seeing their deaths as inevitable, the resistance movement wanted Hirsch, who was well respected by all of the different groups in the camp, to lead a riot and set fire to the barracks as a final act of defiance.

Fredy Hirsch, bottom-right, a gay German Jew who saved children in the Holocaust, is seen at a sporting event in an undated photograph. (Docs for Education)

What happened next is a matter of intense historical debate and is left open-ended in the documentary. Horrified by the knowledge that all of the children in his care were due to be murdered, Hirsch requested a tranquilizer to help him calm down. Shortly after taking it, Hirsch went into a coma from an overdose. The next day he was taken, unconscious, along with the children he had fiercely protected for months and was gassed to death and cremated.

What’s unclear is if Hirsch intentionally overdosed or if he was poisoned. Hirsch, along with a few other inmates who were useful to the Nazis — including the block’s doctors and the artist Dina Gottliebová — were slated to be spared from the liquidation. However, if Hirsch indeed instigated a riot in the camp as the resistance movement wanted, the Nazis would have likely killed them all, even those that were meant to be spared.

The documentary — based on survivor testimony — intimates that the doctors who gave Hirsch the tranquilizer may have deliberately given him too much in order to prevent the riot and thus save their own lives. The other explanation that the documentary offers is that Hirsch could not bear the thought of seeing the children he had cared for go to the gas chambers and decided to take his life by suicide instead.

Hirsch had just turned 28 years old when he died.

While other doomed champions of children, like Janusz Korczak, became venerated and held up as examples of profound moral courage after the Holocaust, Hirsch’s story went largely untold for decades until a number of historians began researching him. This is despite the fact that many of the people who were helped or saved by Hirsch in the ghetto and Auschwitz were children or teenagers at the time, meaning many of them remained alive for decades after the war and easily could have given testimony about his activities.

Historian Dirk Kämper, who published a biography of Hirsch in 2015, believes that Hirsch’s obscurity is because of his open homosexuality, which made him a more challenging figure for people to discuss.

Hirsch has become better known in recent years, however. In 2016, a gymnasium in his hometown of Aachen, Germany, was named after him. In 2021, he was honored with a “Google Doodle,” showing a cartoon of him performing calisthenics.

Gat said he found out about Hirsch while researching an earlier documentary that he made. Hirsch’s sexuality is certainly discussed in the film — Hirsch’s niece says in it that “the one thing” that her father told her about her uncle was that he was gay, “as though that was the most important thing about him” — but it is far from the central focus. Gat, who is himself gay, said the documentary is “a story about heroism during the Holocaust,” not specifically about LGBTQ issues.

Far from a fringe or radical film, “Dear Fredy” has been shown regularly by the Kan public broadcaster on Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day and has been featured in documentary festivals and events around the world over the years, including in the US, Taiwan and the Czech Republic.

The film, which is in a combination of Hebrew, English, Czech and German, will be screened in Kibbutz Ma’anit northeast of Netanya next week. An English-subtitled version can also be seen online for a small fee. Gat said it will be shown in a number of cities and towns on Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 17-18.

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