A soccer ball. Less than 12 inches wide and weighing just a few pounds.
Something so small became a powerful shield of safety for Aisic Hirsch as a child. He was the only Jewish member of the school soccer team and was known as the star player. On the field he was respected and admired. Off the field, he was the target of antisemitism.
“There was a bridge near our school that we crossed each day. The non-Jewish boys would hide and wait on the Jewish children to come by. They would pelt us with rocks, call us ugly names, and pick fights.
“The only way I had to protect myself was by calling out, ‘It’s me, Aisic, the soccer player.’ When they recognized me, they would stop attacking us, at least until the next time.”
The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest Jewish ghetto established under Nazi occupation. In the three years it existed, starvation, disease, and deportations to concentration camps and extermination camps decreased the population of the ghetto from an estimated 450,000 to 37,000.
Aisic Hirsch was the only member of his family to survive the Warsaw Ghetto. After his younger brother, Samuel, and his grandmother died in the ghetto, Aisic’s mother arranged for his escape. She discovered guards could be paid to look the other way as the organization “Save the Children” helped children flee the ghetto.
“I didn’t want to leave my mother, but she told me, ‘Only one of us is going to live, and it’s going to be you.’ She arranged for me to slip out at night with a group of children. I never saw my mother again.”
But getting out of the ghetto was only the beginning. Even though some guards could be paid to turn their backs as children escaped, others were waiting on the outside to catch them and turn them in for a reward. Aisic made it past the guards and chose to separate himself from the others in order to attract less attention.
Familiar with the route back home, he walked at night and hid during the day. After three days, he reached the home of a family friend and asked for help. Unable to take him in for fear of German retaliation against his family, the man directed Aisic to hide in the nearby cemetery … the same cemetery where Aisic’s father had been buried the previous year. The man told him he would send food by his son every other day. At the cemetery, Aisic found shelter in a small cave – a frightening hiding place among thick weeds and broken tombstones.
Aisic’s suspicion of the man’s son began when he no longer looked Aisic in the eyes when he brought the food. Suspicion turned into fear, and Aisic started hiding in a tree on the days he expected the boy.
“One day at dusk, as I sat high on a tree branch, I saw him approaching with German soldiers. I had been turned in for a reward. Guns drawn, the soldiers approached my hiding place and began to shoot inside. Then, they pierced inside the cave with bayonets. They left without even checking to see if I was dead or alive.
“The memory of that night is never far from my thoughts. I recall the feeling of hunger, having no one to turn to for comfort, and the uncertainty of where I would go. I was a frightened ten-year-old boy, a little boy alone in the dark.
“The Russian Army arrived in our Polish village in May 1945. They set up their headquarters on the farm where I was living. I was posing as a Catholic orphan, helping a lady tend her farm. Her sons had already fled since they worked in the Gestapo’s office.
“I thought the Russians were going to kill me. Since they didn’t believe I was Jewish, they beat me along with the others.
“After I convinced them I was indeed a young Jewish boy hiding on the farm, I was able to celebrate liberation from the Germans.
“I was 14 years old.”
Young Aisic Hirsch was sixteen years old when he traveled to Palestine, now Israel, in 1946. As a young boy, he had survived nearly two years in the Warsaw Ghetto and a little more than three years working as a farm hand in Poland. There, he had posed as a Catholic boy, complete with false name and fake birth certificate.
The arrival of Russian troops freed him from the terrors of the Holocaust, making it possible for him to emigrate. In the years following World War I, Palestine had become a British Mandate, and Jewish immigration had steadily increased. British efforts to restrict this immigration were countered by international support for Jews following the near-extermination of European Jews by the Nazis.
“I was the only survivor in my family, so I had nowhere to go after liberation. Palestine held new promise for me,” says Aisic. “I became a policeman and soon met my wife, Riva, who’s also a survivor.”
As tensions grew between the Jewish and Arab populations, and Arab attacks on Jews increased, and with little apparent support from the British Mandate authorities, the Jewish community began to rely on itself for defense.
In 1948, Aisic joined the Israeli military and fought in the War of Independence. On May 14 of that year, the State of Israel was born.
“I think the Holocaust accelerated the creation of Israel,” Aisic says. “I’m proud that I was a part of that process. I’m proud that I was a part of the birth of a nation.”