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CHICAGO — A mysterious photo led a man to discover how his father had survived two death marches during the Holocaust.
Jack Hersch said it was a tradition every Passover for his father, David, to tell his sons about how he escaped the Nazis.
“He would talk about the death march – put on a 34-mile march, he made it sound like he was going to get a cup of coffee around the corner,” Jack Hersch said.
One day, a relative told Jack about a photo of David posted on the website of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp, where he had been held prisoner. Jack said he had never seen the photo before, and seeing the image of his young father made Jack realize he may not have been telling the whole story of how he survived the Holocaust.
So Jack decided to visit the camp where his father once lived, and research his life as a prisoner.
Nazi soldiers began taking Jewish people as prisoners in the Transylvania region in 1943 and packed them in box cars for 600 miles to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria. After watching his mother and other relatives get led away, destined for death, David was assigned to labor camps because he was young and strong.
He was able to speak 10 languages, and used his wit and personality to gain better assignments in the camp. This helped him avoid the gas chambers, but not a death march.
David weighed 80 pounds when he went on his first death march. The prisoners walked for six miles when they came to an intersection where refugees were crossing. He realized if he went back a few yards, he could blend in with the refugees. Putting on a raincoat from the ground, no one noticed as he snuck away.
David eventually made his way to a home where a woman fed him cheese and noodles, but she called the SS and he was recaptured.
On April 16, 1945, David went on his second death march. Exhausted, He went to the side of the road and sat down. An SS soldier put a pistol to the back of David’s head, jolting David back to his feet. After the soldier walked away, David realized no one was watching him.
He escaped again, this time to a home in the woods, where the Freedman family hid him. The Allies defeated the Nazis three weeks later. After the war, David recovered in the hospital with tuberculosis, pneumonia and typhus.
Jack returned to visited the Mauthausen Concentration Camp in 2016, and traced the spots where his father marched and escaped, including the home of the Freedman family.
“Standing in front of his house where I knew my father had hidden for 3 weeks, it was like standing in the hospital where you were born,” Jack said. “This is where I came from . Without this, I would not be here. I found that overwhelming.”