WASHINGTON, June 25 (UPI) -- A purported Holocaust survivor was found to have fabricated great swaths of his personal history, from being caught by Nazis in a round-up to meeting Joseph Mengele and escaping from the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Joseph Hirt admitted he is not a Holocaust survivor after history teacher Andrew Reid and his students saw a presentation he gave in New York, fact-checking and attempting to verify the details of the story -- most of which turned out to be untrue.
"I was wrong. I ask forgiveness," 91-year-old Hirt wrote in a letter delivered to LancasterOnline. "I am writing today to apologize publicly for harm caused to anyone because of my inserting myself into the descriptions of life in Auschwitz. I was not a prisoner there. I did not intend to lessen or overshadow the events which truly happened there by falsely claiming to have been personally involved."
Holes in Hirt's story struck Reid immediately during his speech in Lowville, N.Y., the teacher explained in in a letter accompanying more than 20 pages of research dismantling the tale point-by-point.
Hirt claimed he'd been at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin when he was a child, and seen Hitler refuse to shake hands with American athlete Jesse Owens, a long discredited story that experts had already said was highly unlikely.
Hirt was born in Poland in 1930 to Jewish parents, fleeing the Nazis before World War 2 began, going to Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and after the Germans bombed the city, they moved to Italy.
In 1944, when Italy was liberated by the Allies, Hirt's family was among 900 refugees brought to the United States as guests. While the country had not accepted many refugees, those on the boat were given sanctuary in Oswego, New York, at Fort Ontario Camp. While the refugees were allowed to stay in the United States, that has not been the story Hirt told in speeches and presentations.
In his false story, Hirt was recaptured by the Nazis and brought to Auschwitz, where he escaped under a fence -- only to be caught again, but luckily permitted to run away. He also claimed to have met the Nazi "Angel of Death" Josef Mengele at Auschwitz, that a picture of a prisoner at the death camp was him and showed off a number on his forearm.
"I want to be clear -- I am not a Holocaust denier," Reid wrote into Hirt's story. "In fact, the man who hired me for my first teaching job many years ago was a survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and it is partly in his memory and for the preservation of the truth of what millions of people endured that I have taken upon myself the task of exposing Mr. Hirt's shameful deception."
After several days of declining to respond to Reid's accusations, Hirt submitted his letter to the newspaper, detailing the depth of his lies, which nearly his entire tale is composed of.
After a trip to Auschwitz, several years after the Holocaust, Hirt claims he was so incensed by visitors to the camp and that it had become a "clean and polished tourist destination," he decided to recast himself at the center of a story he thought could help reinforce the evils of the Nazis.
Reid found no record of Hirt ever going to Auschwitz, and Hirt admitted he'd tattooed the number of one of the camps' survivors, Primo Levi, on his arm after Levi man committed suicide in 1987. The picture of an emaciated prisoner Hirt claimed was him wasn't even taken at Auschwitz, but was of a prisoner at the Dachau camp, Reid found.
Reid claimed there was no way for Hirt to have met Mengele, either, because the "doctor" did not arrive at Auschwitz until months after Hirt claimed to have been there. The story about Jesse Owns had previously been discredited for the most part.
Even Hirt's family members had doubts about the story for years, and found Reid's investigation to be a relief, if for no other reason than because it forced the man to drop the ruse.
"For what I've seen of my Uncle Joe, his story is pretty much correct until the time when he's kidnapped and taken to Auschwitz," Michael Hirt told Lancaster Online after Reid's claims were published, but before his uncle had admitted to the untruths. His real story, he said, is "fantastic by itself."