Dr. Joseph Hirt was my school counselor – called a guidance counselor back then – at Unionville High School in the late 1980’s, though he was officially a school psychologist. He was and still is my hero and I have been thinking about him much lately.
I knew Dr. Hirt (pronounced “Heert”) as a strong, sturdy man, perhaps 5’8”, with coarse and curly grey and black hair that matched his beard and mustache. He wore thick glasses and spoke with an accent, clearly some German in there but mixed with something else and something else. His wife, Dorothy, was a resource room (special education) teacher at the school.
“Hirt” is the German word for shepherd, and he was, in every possible way. He shepherded a small flock of troubled kids at the high school. He also had a small farm in Chester Springs, with actual sheep. Today, I am a substitute volunteer shepherd at my church, St. Peter’s in the Great Valley. This would be a good story if I could say that Dr. Hirt taught me to be a shepherd but the only interaction that I can recall with sheep was the time that he brought in a fragile lamb who was not healthy enough to make it through the day alone. I called the lamb “Trouper” and the name stuck. Trouper came to school for a few days but I do not know what happened to him.
Today I am also a school psychologist, and my last name means “healer.” I’ve been reading a book about how we are powerfully influenced by small things that we do not notice, including our names, and that had me thinking about Dr. Hirt. We never talked about a career in school psychology, either.
I know about the farm in Chester Springs because he brought me there as a refuge when I needed it, when I needed a safe place outside of my regular world, something that today would be seen as creepy even if known to be innocent, as it was. In fact, it would be a violation of the policies of most districts today, the kind of thing that could get a person fired, but the world was a different place in the 1980s. When I needed to escape, I could go to his house, do some work, talk things out. I remember riding in his car, probably a Volkswagen, as he shifted manually through the hills and valleys on the way to Route 113.
Dr. Hirt was one of a few educators who went out of their way to help me in those difficult years. They held on to me until I could hold on to myself. Dr. Hirt was a bubble wrap for a fragile teen. When I got into trouble at school, he cushioned the blow and made the penalty into something productive. He saw something in me, never told me what, that he thought was valuable, when I didn’t.
Late in their educational careers, the Hirts opened a bookstore in Downingtown, in a mini-mall beside the McDonald’s, and called it, “The Country Shepherd.” After he retired, he went to work at the Chester County Courthouse as tip staff, and they later sold the farm in Chester Springs and moved to New Holland, Lancaster County. That is how I knew Dr. Hirt when I was in high school and New Holland was the last that I knew of him.
That’s as far as I went when I first started to write this post, except for a paragraph wondering if Dr. Hirt were still alive, with an estimate of his current age if so. Later, I went to Google, thinking that I would find more stories about his lectures from his first-hand experience of the Holocaust, and probably find an obituary as well. Instead, the Internet was ablaze with stories about his exposure as a fraud, misrepresenting himself as a Holocaust survivor. He had been confronted by a history teacher in New York who noted that many of Dr. Hirt’s facts were wrong. Dr. Hirt persisted for a bit, then confessed, recanted, apologized.
Here’s the story on PennLive
Here’s the story on the Guardian
Here’s the story on New Observer
Here it is from the Committee on Open Debate on the Holocaust
I was shocked when I first saw the story, and needed to find it in a few places to help it to make sense, to be sure that it was right. After that, it hurt a bit, because I knew Dr. Hirt as a very good man, and then I was angered by the stupidity of what he did. The first two sources above are fairly neutral but the New Observer calls this, “Another ‘Holocaust Survivor’ Hoax Exposed” and then you have the skepticism of CODOH. While claiming to want to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, Dr. Hirt has turned himself into a weapon to be used by Holocaust deniers.
That was stupid and he is not and thus the question of why he did what he did. In his letter to Lancaster Online, the local news service, he says that he is “consulting with a mental health professional” and his pastor. I don’t understand what he did and he may not, either. I do not think that he acted maliciously. He gained for himself undeserved attention and fame but I do not know him as a flashy or selfish person. He did not become wealthy from this lie. It makes no sense.
From there, I wondered what I was doing with a “hero” at age 47 years. Aren’t heroes for children? I suspect that it’s another pondering for another post. In a narrow sense, if a hero is a model, perhaps for a role or perhaps just for a trait or an ability or an attitude or a way of living, then why shouldn’t a grown man have one? Humans are, by nature, forever learning from each other, copying each other whether wisely or foolishly, and this drive to learn, mercifully, does not stop in adolescence, the age most associated with “peer pressure.” Today I, as a Mason, have peers who inspire me to do better and not to take the easier approach of doing worse. However, that is more pondering for another post, another tale for another time.
I also considered scrapping this post, which has surely not turned out as I intended, but I believe that we learn, grow, are challenged, become better, precisely when things do not go as intended. As a teenager in Unionville, I advocated justice militantly because I was so completely sure that the world was black or white, right or wrong, and I was always on the right side of things. I cannot type this without laughing at how wrong I was. I still like justice but I want it to be tempered with mercy, which I want for myself more than justice. I have been wrong before and will be wrong again and I want to be corrected, but gently. I am sure that a man’s life and character ought not to be judged by his worst act.
You might sputter that you haven’t, or you wouldn’t, whatever. If that is the case and you can say that you were in a situation in which you were tempted, but resisted, now I am impressed. Until then, neither of us knows what you might do. If you ever pray the “Our Father” then you have asked to be spared finding out.
I do not know why Dr. Hirt did what he did and it is not my place to speculate. I am among many Unionville High School alums who were cared about and supported by Dr. Joseph Hirt. That was real and that is how he came to be my hero and what he did for me in 1987 has nothing to do with what he did in 2015. Yes, he lied later, so how can I believe him? Everyone lies, and they lie about the lies (fib, white lie, soften the blow) so where does that leave us? Believing no one? That’s an option but it’s a horrible way to live. I choose to believe in the good that I lived, not heard lectured, but lived, when I was around him.
Dr. Hirt handled this situation like a man, stood up like a good man. He offered a full confession of his wrongs and asked for forgiveness. He could have persisted in his claims, knowing that the invitations to speak would dwindle with the controversy and he could quietly stop speaking about the Holocaust. Like many others, he could have covered his lies with another lie, claim that health problems made it impossible for him to continue speaking publicly. He’s 91 years old so who would challenge him on that? A few weeks ago, I thought that he was dead. Maybe the timing would be obviously convenient but he would stop speaking publicly and that would satisfy most of his accusers.
The point is that he could have gone away quietly but instead, he confessed and apologized. That must have been hard, must have taken courage, and I respect him for it. That is the man whom I knew in high school. Even his accuser has stated that Dr. Hirt should be forgiven and face no legal repercussions. I do not know why Dr. Hirt did what he did but if I have any right to claim injury from it, and I really don’t know if I do, then I forgive him, and I continue to be grateful for the real and powerful good that he brought to my life long ago.
Der Herr ist mein Hirte. (Ps. 23)