Ben Miller recounts the life of a Holocaust survivor, family man and pillar of our community.
THIS past Saturday, the Cape May community lost one if its strongest supporters and most charismatic personalities, Harry Hirsch. Nearly five years ago, Harry’s doctors informed his family that the end was near, following a series of seizures and other medical complications. According to his son, Larry, all but one doctor gave Harry just a short time to live. The dissenting doctor must have known he was dealing with someone special.
Harry was a strong man, a fighter in the metaphorical sense, someone who had the ability to persevere through even the toughest of conditions. “Four months later he was back living on his own. He visited us for Shabbat and down at the hotel [Montreal Inn],” remembers Larry. In the years since his recovery, Harry was able to share many more special times with his family and friends, including the 2010 dedication of Harry’s Ocean Bar & Grille in his honor.
Those who knew of Harry’s past were not surprised by the inner strength he summoned to persevere for the past five years. Harry was born in 1923, the youngest of six children on a family farm in the Polish village of Kucowo. When he was 16 years old, German soldiers invaded Poland on Hitler’s orders. Harry and his brother Josef were convinced to board a train that they were told would take them to a better place filled with opportunities.
When the train doors were finally opened, the boys found themselves standing in front of a sign that read, “Arbeit macht frei.” They knew as they passed under the gate into Auschwitz that they had been grossly deceived. Harry and Josef survived five years at the concentration camp until January of 1945, when German leadership gave the order to execute all prisoners.
Russian troops were advancing and the German government wanted to hide evidence of what they had done in the camps. Many prisoners were saved by fleeing German soldiers who ignored the order, but Harry and Josef were not so lucky. The two brothers were lined up against a wall with their bunkmates. German soldiers opened fire with machine guns, continuing to shoot until the entire group was cut down.
Miraculously, Harry and Josef were not hit by the barrage of bullets, though they remained silently hidden underneath the other bodies until they were sure the soldiers had left. They eventually dug their way out and escaped the camp. They later learned their three other brothers and their sister had been killed by German soldiers.
Harry met his wife, Sophie, at a German deportation camp the following year and in 1951, the two moved to America in search of a better life. Their son, Larry, was born the next year and eight years later, Joe was born.
Though Harry Hirsch passed away Saturday, he did it on his own terms, surrounded by family at the end of a long and fulfilling life. Harry’s legacy can be seen in his many business interests in the Cape May area, his history of community involvement and in the family that now mourns his passing: his children, Larry and Joe Hirsch, their spouses, Amy and Miriam Hirsch, and his grandchildren, Jonathan, Evan, Sophie and Abbie Hirsch.
“Harry wanted me to say I was his daughter, not daughter-in-law,” recalls Miriam. “He was so dear to me. I will miss him immensely. He was such a special man.”
Evan recalled the same sentiment as he sat down to write about his grandfather for the funeral service: “His presence loomed large in our family, as will his spirit. I am profoundly grateful for the time we spent together, and for the legacy he leaves to me and to my family.”
Harry has been a fixture in Cape May since 1963, when an Avalon Supermarket butcher named Sid Hess gave him a business tip. Harry already owned a chicken and egg wholesale business in Wildwood and Sid thought he might be interested in another venture. He told Harry about a bar that had been built on the beachfront in Cape May by a Quaker, whose family was not pleased about the notion of a Quaker-owned bar.
The family was forcing the pious gentleman to sell and after a little negotiation, Harry and Sid decided to go into business together. They purchased the bar with the agreement that Harry would financially back the venture and Sid would run it, though neither told Harry’s wife, Sophie until after the sale. Sophie was slightly more pleased about the bar than the Quaker man’s family, but Harry and Sid made it up to her the following year.
Sid learned of a plan by the City of Cape May to auction lots on the eastern side of the island and shared it with Harry. After talking it over this time, Sophie went to the auction and purchased the land herself. Construction on the Montreal Inn began less than a year later. It was a busy time in the Hirsch household – Sophie oversaw the hotel with Joe by her side and Harry continued working at his wholesale business with Larry.
Things continued at that frenetic pace until 1975, when Harry’s beloved wife, Sophie, passed away. Harry had sold his interests in the bar (now Carney’s) to Sid the year before and he decided to move to Cape May full-time to focus his attention on the hotel.
“When Larry and I moved here in 1979, he [Harry] worked like a dog. My kids became his extra-curricular activities,” recounts Miriam. “I would not trade the time they had with him for anything.”
In the years since, the Montreal Inn has continued to grow and evolve, while Harry expanded his reach into other Cape May businesses. He was instrumental in developing several Washington Street Mall buildings, including the City Centre Mall he constructed in 1985. In the early 1990s, Harry oversaw the demolition of Steger’s former beach shop and the subsequent redevelopment of the land into shops and restaurants.
Following his retirement from the hotel, Harry had the pleasure of watching both his sons and his grandson, Jonathan, get involved in the family business. Knowing his children had chosen to follow in his footsteps made him happy, but seeing his grandson continue the legacy was particularly special to him, notes Larry. “I think it made him proud, very happy to see Jonathan involved.”
“My father was a simple, unassuming person, “ remembers Larry, who fondly tells stories of Harry walking the Washington Street Mall to catch up with old friends. “He would walk around town, talk with the locals and share stories. My father loved Cape May. He loved it. He frequently said, ‘The air in Cape May is the freshest air anywhere.’”
Jonathan recalls the same spirit, “He told me coming to Cape May rejuvenated him. All he had to do was breathe in the salt air and he knew he was home.”