Peter Hirschmann welcomes a guest into his sunny Maplewood apartment. The comfortable surroundings — art on the walls, tasteful furnishings, telescope trained on the view of Manhattan from the window — belie the difficulties of his early youth.
Hirschmann, the son of a well-to-do business owner, grew up in Nuremberg, Germany. At 14, in 1938, he saw the destruction of his synagogue on Kristallnacht, fled with his older brother to England, and ultimately settled with his parents in Newark, where he attended high school and eventually overcame his family’s newfound poverty.
He served in the United States Army and fought in World War II, earning a Purple Heart in the Battle of the Bulge. He was captured by the Germans during that battle, and was interned in a prisoner-of-war camp near Berlin until being liberated in May 1945 by the British.
He would eventually become successful as a real estate broker involved in sales and leasing of industrial properties, as well as a generous philanthropist.
As veterans around the world mark the 65th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, one of the last major German offensives of the war, Hirschmann recalled his role in the fighting and the life he built in the wake of so much tragedy.
It was in 1943 — when he was 18 and still a German citizen with less than five years’ residency in the United States — that he joined the army. “We were considered enemy aliens. As such they couldn’t draft us,” said Hirschmann, now 85.
So how did he end up in the U.S. armed forces? “I signed a waiver,” he said. “Everybody signed the waiver, and so did I. You could say I volunteered, but it wasn’t really voluntary. I don’t know what the alternative would have been.”
Sent overseas in 1944, he was committed to action around Dec. 1, 1944. Part of the 78th Infantry, he started in France and soon ended up in Belgium just in time for the Battle of the Bulge. Also known as the Ardennes Offensive, it began as a surprise attack by the Germans on Dec. 16, 1944.
Hirschmann was one of 800,000 soldiers in the battle; 19,000 Americans would die, making it one of the bloodiest battles in U.S. history. Twelve inches of snow had fallen the night before the initial attack; Hirschmann earned his Purple Heart after suffering frostbite on his feet during the battle.
He still suffers the effects of that frostbite. “I have cold feet, discoloration,” he said. “If I walk for any length of time, they become discolored.”
As part of the 310th Infantry regiment, he took part in the attempt to take the town of Kesternich, just inside Germany on the Belgian border. They entered Kesternich successfully, but could not hold it.
“We were on the verge of entering Germany,” he said. “Instead of going forward, all of a sudden we were hit by a ton of bricks. We were dug in in foxholes. When the Germans came…we withdrew to the basements of farmhouses nearby.
“Once you’re in there, it’s like a mousetrap,” he recalled. “All they had to do was what they did. They pulled up a tank and started shelling the house and throwing hand grenades into the basement where we were so we had no choice but to surrender. We were marched back behind the lines.”
In the end, Hirschmann was one of 300 GIs taken prisoner, nearly the entire regiment. The division’s records list 1,515 dead, wounded, missing, and injured.
Hirschman had a remarkable interaction with his captor. “The German soldier who was in charge of me recognized I hadn’t eaten anything in quite a while, and he handed me a chocolate bar.” He didn’t think about it at all in the moment, but, he said, “In retrospect I thought it was one of the finest things that anybody could have done for me at the time.”
When he was first captured, Hirschmann was interrogated by a German officer, who couldn’t have known that he was a German citizen fighting against his “homeland.”
“He asked me to empty out my pockets. Whatever I had I put in front of him. And he said, ‘All right, you can put it back in your pockets.’ He spoke in English. Among the items was a piece of string. He said, ‘Nicht die zeichenfolge’ — not the string. Like a jerk I handed him back the string.
“So he knew I could speak German, and he started to speak German to me. I caught myself in the nick of time. I was able to get away with saying I learned German in high school.”
Otherwise, Hirschmann said, he wasn’t concerned about his nationality or his religion.
“I was in a very precarious spot without realizing it and never gave it a thought,” he said. “Here I was a German citizen…fighting the Germans with the American army — and I’m Jewish besides. What could have happened if someone had delved into that situation? You know, they had my fingerprints. As a Jew in Germany your fingerprints were all over the place, on all official records. All they had to do was fingerprint me….”
Luckily, no one ever did.
In fact, he was treated no differently from the other POWs except on one occasion. Staying the night near a freight yard, he recalled, the area was bombed by the British and there were many casualties. In the morning, Hirschmann said, “there was a big mess there that needed to be cleaned up. They selected all the soldiers with an ‘H’ on their dog tags — ‘H’ for Hebrew.”
He attributes his otherwise good fortune to the fact that prisoners of war were held by the military wing of the German army, not the political wing.
Asked if he ever worried he wouldn’t make it out alive, he said, “You don’t think of those things. The thought never occurred to me.”
And he wasn’t yet aware of the extent of the Nazis’ persecution and murder of Europe’s Jews.
“I never knew what was going on with the Jews,” he said. “Nobody knew. I didn’t know.”
After his liberation in 1945, he eventually made his way back to Newark, and returned to the job he had started as a junior accountant. He landed a job at Kislak Co., the real estate and investment firm, where he stayed for 15 years. In 1967, he struck out on his own, establishing Peter Hirschmann Inc. in Livingston. He has been managing his own business ever since.
He has been volunteering for the United Jewish Appeal since 1959. He chaired UJA activities at Mountain Country Club and in Irvington and South Orange/Maplewood, and served and chaired a host of committees and task forces of what became United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ. A member of the Lester Society, whose members created endowments of $100,000 or more to the Jewish Community Foundation of MetroWest, he still comes to the Super Sunday fund-raiser every year.
He said he is inspired by “whatever inspires anyone to want to be helpful if they can afford to be helpful.”
“If you can give time, if you can give money,” he said, you should.
He is passionate about Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, where his wife, Merle — a retired high school teacher and philanthropist — is annual giving chair, and the Miracle Walk at Saint Barnabas Medical Center, an annual fund-raiser for the Livingston hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit. His son and daughter-in-law founded the walk a decade ago, after Hirschmann’s granddaughter spent the first 96 days of her life in the unit.
The Hirschmanns also have a daughter and five grandchildren.
When his children were 15 and 13, Hirschmann returned to Nuremberg with his family, and even had tea with the current owners of his childhood home.
The most emotional moment of that trip came when Hirschmann visited the site of his childhood synagogue, burned during Kristallnacht. An apartment had been built on the site, with a patch of grass to the side where a sign is the only reminder of what once stood there.
Hirschmann began to recite the writing on the sign, but choked up, and his wife finished for him.
“Only a few of us remain who can remember this house — in all its splendor,” she said.