S.F. Holocaust survivor, former president of Bnai Emunah, dies

Hermann Hirschfeld drove a Volkswagen Beetle, spoke German in the home and visited Berlin often. A survivor of Auschwitz, he nonetheless loved Germany, his homeland.

But he loved Judaism more.

Hirschfield, who had served as president of two San Francisco Jewish organizations, Congregation B'nai Emunah and B'nai B'rith Lodge #21, died Saturday at Kaiser Hospital in South San Francisco. He was 86.

Hirschfeld is survived by his wife, Inge; son, Bob; daughter-in-law, Joyce; and granddaughters, Jenny and Becky.

Born in 1909, Hirschfeld was raised in Berlin, where he earned a degree in education from Friedrich-Wilhelm University in 1933. A teacher, he met future wife Inge while working at a school for Jewish students. They married in 1941.

In 1943, the young couple was sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. After 15 months, they were separated and sent to Auschwitz, each unaware of the other's fate.

They were re-united after the war at a friend's home. In 1947 they immigrated to the United States, settling in San Francisco.

Soon after arriving, Hermann Hirschfeld ran into a colleague from Germany, Rabbi George Kantorowsky, who was then rabbi at B'nai Emunah. He invited Hirschfeld to join the congregation.

Although he didn't attend services every week, he remained connected to Judaism.

"He never lost his faith," said his son, Bob Hirschfeld. "He was a practical man, religious in a non-practicing sense. He felt he had a guardian angel who looked out for him.

"He knew it didn't make sense, but there were so many coincidences. Surviving the camps, finding his wife again. He felt protected and grateful."

In adversity, he held on to that sentiment.

For example, while incarcerated at Theresienstadt Inge gave birth to twins. Born prematurely, the babies died. As painful as it was, Hermann Hirschfeld "knew [it was better as] the twins would have been subjected to horrible medical experiments by the Nazis," Bob Hirschfeld said.

Unlike many Holocaust survivors who only began talking about their horrific experiences in later years, Hermann and Inge spoke freely of the concentration camps. And Hermann was careful to distinguish between Nazis and ordinary Germans.

"He would always say he and my mother survived because of the many good non-Jewish Germans who gave them extra rations and hid their precious belongings," Bob Hirschfeld said.

However, he had a certain distance from his own story. When Bob Hirschfeld recorded his father's experiences, he asked him how he felt about the indignities he endured. Often there was no response.

"He would tell me everything I wanted to know, but he would never express his feelings. Just facts," Bob Hirschfeld said. The same was true when the Holocaust Oral History Project taped an interview with him about his experiences.

"But he did have nightmares then [at the time of the interview]," Bob Hirschfeld added.

As detached as Hirschfeld sometimes seemed about the concentration camps, he was equally passionate about learning.

Upon arriving in San Francisco, he enrolled in bookkeeping classes at Commerce High School. Later he attended Golden Gate University, studying for the certified public accountancy exams.

And for years, Hirschfeld joined a dozen friends each Friday at Knight's Deli for an informal Bible learning group.

"He was a person that always read and learned," Inge Hirschfeld said. "Most of what he learned was Bible. But he was terribly interested in everything. Especially everything Jewish."

Private services will be held for Hermann Hirschfeld. The family suggests donations to the charity of your choice.