Zoli: An International Star Murdered by the Nazis

The fate of Zoltán Hirsch (1885-1944) ranks with that of Franceska Mann, whom we wrote about just two days ago, as a chilling reminder of the cold-blooded implacability of the Nazis in their genocidal mission. International fame and the love and laughter of thousands were no bulwark against the Holocaust.

Hirsch was both a little person and a Jew who grew up in Pécs, the fifth largest city in Hungary. As a child, he spent a lot of time in his city’s many entertainment venues, the Pécs Vaudeville Theatre, the Fairy Garden Music Hall, and the Schmitt Circus. He performed at the 1907 National Exhibition in Pécs, and then moved on to Budapest, then Vienna, then Amsterdam, where he performed with Circus Shuman as a clown and acrobat. One of his acts was to dress in the folk costumes of all the countries of Europe, performing lampoons of their national images. He performed with Circus Hagenbeck, and at the top venues in London, Paris, and St. Petersburg, and toured as far away as Latin America and South Africa. He was affectionately known wherever he performed as “Zoli”.

Hirsch’s home base remained Hungary where he continued to perform in such venues as the Orpheum in Budapest, the Beketow Circus (later known as Circus Fényes), and the Ungarische Lilliputaner Gruppe, a dwarf theatre at FunPark, a Hungarian amusement park. Between 1915 and 1938 he appeared in seven Hungarian films.

But it wasn’t enough to save him. Like most of Europe of the time, Hungary moved far to the right during the 1930s. They forged a major trade partnership with Germany as early as 1934, and began passing anti-Jewish laws. In 1937, Austria, with which Hungary had co-existed in the nation of Austria-Hungary until 1918, merged with Nazi Germany in the Anschluss. Hungary began making territorial claims on ethnic Hungarian pockets of neighboring countries. In 1940, they formally became an Axis Power, and joined the war against the Soviet Union. Throughout these years, Jews were unable to work in Hungary, even circus performers like Zoli. He survived by self-publishing a memoir, The Great Life of a Small Man, selling copies of it in the street.

Things grew even worse in 1944. Hungary had attempted to make a separate, secret peace with the Western Allies that year. When Hitler learned about this betrayal he was furious, and he occupied Hungary, making it a protectorate of Germany. This is when Hungarian Jews were deported to death camps. Hirsch was transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and gassed that year.

Three decades later, this toy, the Roli Zoli became popular in Hungary, proof of the long shadow cast by the diminutive performer. More detail on Hirsch’s life and death can be found here.

For more on performing little people please check out Rose’s Royal Midgets and Other Little People in Vaudeville.