Wired to Survive | Jack J. Hersch retraces the steps of his father’s “Death March Escape”

Jack J. Hersch’s first book Death March Escape is a story for the ages: a story of miracles—six to be exact—and a story of survival in the worst conditions possible. He recounts the journey his father David took as he twice escaped from the Nazis, taking you on that journey as Hersch experiences it himself; it feels like you are with him through all his ups and downs. Palpable from the get-go, this book is not to be missed.

David Hersch has now been added to my growing list of heroes that include Ernest Shackleton and the Spartans from the Battle of Thermopylae. His tenacious nature and action in the face of severe adversity is one for the record books. This book was great to follow and hard to put down. Death March Escape is an heirloom book if I’ve ever read one. The Arts STL was happy to catch up with Hersch prior to his visit as part of the 41st Annual St. Louis Jewish Book Festival.

The Arts STL: First, four quick ice breaker questions. They are super easy. What was your most favorite things about today so far?

Jack J. Hersch: About today? Just today? Is there something special going on?

[laughing] There is always something special going on when we wake up every morning.

[laughing] Okay, so the thing that was most special about today…the way my wife looked on her way to work today.

Ohhh I love that! What challenges did you face today?

I’m writing a new book and a report came out in final preliminary form, I couldn’t find it on the internet; that was a challenge. I’m writing this book and I also wrote a few hundred words, and that’s generally a challenge.

And I burnt my toast a little bit more than I usually do. I normally want it burnt somewhat, but I went a little bit too far.

What good thing did you do for someone else today?

I made my wife coffee.

Yes! You are such a good man. Such a good husband. I love this. What are you grateful for today?

Being alive.

There you go. That’s perfect. That’s the answer I give, too. 

Death March Escape is the story of your father escaping the Nazi concentration camps not once, but twice! That was unheard of and is such a wonderful story to come out of such a tragedy. Besides wanting to honor your father for his heroism in the face of severe opposition, you’ve written a beautiful heirloom book for future generations to come. How do you feel about accomplishing such a feat? 

I didn’t really see it as gloriously as you described it. I saw it as something that needed to be done. What I’ve realized is that my father’s story impacted people. I really felt I had no choice. I was at a dinner a few years ago in the Midwest, and it was a business dinner, and during dinner, I don’t know why, but my father’s story came up. And, I told it. I told the super abridged version.

And the next day, I get a call from one of the guys at dinner [who was not Jewish] who said to me, he’s never met a survivor, he’s never met anyone he knew to be related to a survivor, he’d never heard of story like that in his life, and he said it changed his life overnight. It was like all of a sudden nothing will never be quite be as hard as it was before. And I thought if that was true of him, then it has to be true of thousands of people, many tens of thousands of people. I have to put the story to paper. So once I realized that I had to do it I just went and got it done.

You know I have to agree with the man at dinner because I read your book and I had the same feeling. Now I have read, I’m a big fan of military history, so, the Battle of Thermopylae and Shackleton’s Endurance really rank up there with your father’s story. And those two, when I’m having a really bad day, those two stories are my go-to, so now I will be adding your dad’s story to my list.

I appreciate you saying that.

Thank you for putting in italicized words that the reader may have been unfamiliar with, I know it came in handy for me as I went through your book. I also greatly appreciate the smaller chapters, breaking the story down into bite-sized pieces helped digest some of the more heartbreaking parts. You did a beautiful job, especially at the end, bringing it to a close and keeping the reader engaged. How was it putting together the timeline for your book? Did you find it difficult or relatively easy given the history you wanted to share?

The way I wrote the book was the first thing I did was I wrote my father’s story. Once I decided to…let me back up a bit. I didn’t know I was writing a book. It happened to be concurrent with some of the research I had been doing over the years, that was triggered by my cousin’s phone call, as I said in the book—I was sort of already on my course of researching this. At some point between that dinner and the quality of the story that I seemed to be developing that I had not only the story of my dad here, but the story of my story of learning all the things I didn’t know about my father’s story.

And so the way I decided to write it was first I wrote my father’s story. That took me, I think about four months to get that down. Then, [I] interweaved the story of my going to Europe and all the things that I’ve learned and the research that I did, the experiences that I had, and then when that was done I added to that the 65th Infantry division and their march through Europe, culminating in their arrival at Enns on the night of May 5th. And so, the story, the old cliché of “it writes itself”: it didn’t write itself, but once I had my father’s story down, I knew roughly where to weave in the other two pieces.

As a fan of military history, I also appreciated the military aspect of your writing. It helped blend together the opposing forces at play during that time. When you started writing, did you have a grasp on the intricacies of World War II, or through your research for your book did you find out more than you had ever imagined?

Well it’s both, I am also a fan of military history, so I was well aware of Patton’s march through Europe. Everything that happened in Europe, I knew about. I obviously didn’t know specifically about the 65th infantry division, in fact I just went to their reunion in Dayton, Ohio a couple of weeks ago, and I spoke about the book, which was an experience in and of itself. But, in learning about their march from the Saar River right to the town of Enns. Finding out by the way why they stopped at the town of Enns. That it was a decision between Stalin and Roosevelt to make that the border between the Russian zone and the American zone just consequently in the town where my father was hiding. So in researching all of that, I obviously learned a lot of things I hadn’t known before, but I went into this with a rough outline, a rough knowledge I should say long ago embedded in my brain.

Your regret and grief are a constant companion in the first half of this book. I was so happy to see that by the end you found your own worth when it came to putting those parts of yourself to rest. It speaks to the tenacity that I believe you’ve inherited rightly from your parents. Do you also feel that way?

I think a lot of my personality, and my brothers’ [personality], comes hardwired from our parents. My father, who never had a bad day in spite of some really horrific days [if] viewed from the outside—I’m the same way. No matter how bad things are, it beats the alternative.

Yeah, I do. I think a lot of my personality, and my brothers’ [personality], comes hardwired from our parents. My father, who never had a bad day in spite of some really horrific days [if] viewed from the outside—I’m the same way. No matter how bad things are, it beats the alternative. No matter how rough of a day I’m having, not only does it beat the alternative, it beats the days that many other people around the world are having. I’m hardwired to think that way. These challenges are the sort that I face by putting one foot in front of the other. I think that when you are incarcerated for 11 months in a concentration camp, the only way you get through is by doing the same thing. And I don’t think I developed that because of my father’s experience. I think I developed that because I was hardwired to go there. They say that survivors have personality traits that predispose them, in addition to all the luck that they needed to get to where they got, but they had personality traits that predisposed them to being able to survive these things. I think my brother and I have a little bit of that just because we are our father’s children.

In the book your father mentions his mother’s premonition of him surviving and going back through in a “luxury way.” As a mother myself, I can appreciate a mother’s intuition. One of my favorite parts is when you realized on your run that he may have gone back to fulfill that promise to her. Do you have anymore realizations that came up after you finished the book that you’d like to share? 

[laughing] I hate to disappoint you with the answer. I don’t think I do. I think it hit me in the three years to write it and I got it on paper.

The journey that you undertook to better understand your father was one of my favorite aspects of your story. When in doubt, I have found that retracing another person’s footsteps can be extremely healing. Do you think that by making this trip for yourself that you also have healed many an ancestor and helped your younger brother Elliot (who is featured in the story) heal too in ways seen and yet to be seen?

I think yes. I think we all handle who we are relative to who our parents were and what their experiences were in our own unique ways. And my brother realizes as much as I do where we come from. I don’t think he feels quite as connected to it as I do, but I think that having written the book has brought him closer to our father than he was before reading the book.

Just to take your question to the next level: you didn’t ask it this way, but when I’ve spoken a lot about the book—I wouldn’t describe it as a book tour, but I’ve been asked to speak on Yom Hashoah (Hebrew for the Day of Remembrance of the Holocost), and other places that I’ve spoken—it never fails that after I speak, at least one person will ask me to help them in digging up their own past, their parents’ own past. They get stymied and they’ve done some research and they didn’t know how to get to the next level. There are people who are hungering to know what their parents’ backgrounds were. And I think that the book, and my speaking about the book, has motivated people to kind of get to the next level, to get over hurdles that may have been shelved and decided not to go any further.

Yes, I have noticed that with a lot of books that I read about military history as well. Especially when it happens in our own family. 

Yeah, for sure, so that’s where I thought your question was going. Then to add to my brother, I just wanted to add to it.

Yeah. Absolutely, that’s helping other people also open up doors that wouldn’t have been there before.

An interesting part of my career has been doing research. So it comes naturally to me, to dig and to know how to dig and I don’t think I realized that that is in fact an acquired skill that some people just don’t have. Virtually every time I’ve spoken, someone has either been there or afterward in a follow-up reached out and said, “Hey, how do I get to step 19, I got stuck on 18 and I don’t know where to go?”

Thank you for sharing your father with us. Your dad lights up this book like nothing I’ve experienced before. Your knack for delivering on a well-rounded account is phenomenal. You credit your editor for helping round out your writing, but the meat of the story had to come from somewhere; which I’m impressed with. Have you another book in you somewhere? If you do, I’d surely like to read it.

I do, I’m actually writing a book about automation in aviation—automation and aviation safety—triggered by what has happened with the 737 Max, but it’s going to be a much bigger issue than just that one Boeing airplane. It will address the whole question of automation in the sky; adding to more or less risk per passenger.

Perfect. My grandfather was an Aeronautical engineer so that will be a great book to read. 

I’ve already gotten an advance on it. It’s going to happen, it’s going to be out next summer. I’m two-thirds of the way through it.

Our conversation lasted another 15 minutes talking about his book cover, the pictures included in the book, and the websites associated with this story. This is the first book that I’ve ever read that you can follow along on his travels by pulling up Google Earth. It’s quite the adventure to be able to access the internet and follow in his footsteps. He takes you on a step by step vision quest as you follow his journey through the three different concentration camps and through Enns, Austria.

Jack J. Hersch is appearing at 10:30AM on Thursday, November 7th at a free event at the Staenberg Family Complex, 2 Millstone Campus Drive in Creve Coeur, as part of the 41st annual St. Louis Jewish Book Festival. To find out more on Death March Escape, please visit the website by the same name www.deathmarchescape.com. You can also visit his father’s website www.davidhersch.com as well for more information and photographs. If you’d like to know more about the concentration camps you can also go to the Mauthausen Memorial website that is dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust. | Keva Bartnick

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