Martel (later Martha) Sommer Hirsch is the daughter of Solomon and Betty Sommer. She was born on September 28, 1918 in Frankfurt where her father was a butcher. Her mother was the youngest of twelve siblings, and her extended family gathered regularly to celebrate birthdays and other occasions together. Martel's sister lse (later Flehinger, b. 1912) immigrated to the United States in 1936, and her brother Max (b. 1911) joined her two years later, arriving four weeks before Kristallnacht. Martel began studying piano as a child and always wanted to pursue a musical career. In addition to attending the Philanthropin School in Frankfurt, Martel studied privately with the organist of the liberal Frankfurt Westend Synagogue. She soon became an organist in her own right and in 1936 she obtained a position as a synagogue organist in Wiesbaden. She continued to live at home and study in Frankfurt, but she spent her weekends in Wiesbaden. In addition, Martel performed with the Frankfurt Kulturbund Orchestra. Following Kristallnacht, Martel became determined to leave Germany, but her parents who had been reluctant to apply for visas had very high numbers on the waiting list. On September 1, 1939 (the same day that Germany invaded Poland, thus beginning World War II) Martel left Germany alone. She took a train to The Netherlands and a boat to Liverpool. Unfortunately, her parents never managed to emigrate and were deported to Zamosc, Poland. They and most of Martel's extensive extended family perished in the Holocaust. After arriving in New York, Martel found work as a synagogue organist for the Congregation Habonim, a congregation of Jewish refugees founded by Rabbi Hugo Hahn in 1939.
One of Martel's early assignments was to help audition cantors for the synagogue. The synagogue hired a young cantor named Erwin Hirsch. Erwin Hirsch was the son of Sally and Milly Hirsch. He was born in Strasbourg on June 28, 1914 but soon afterwards moved with his family to Mannheim. Erwin had one younger brother named Werner who came to the United States on a Kindertransport at the age of 14. Erwin studied cantorial music in the Wuerzburg Hebrew Teacher's Seminary (Judische Leherebildungsanstalt Seminary) and served as an assistant to Cantor Hugo Adler in the Haupt Synagogue in Mannheim. On Kristallnacht night, November 10, 1938, Erwin was arrested and incarcerated briefly in the Dachau concentration camp. After his release, he immigrated to the United States, arriving in New York on May 31, 1939. Erwin and Martel became musical partners through the Habonim Synagogue and eventually developed a romantic attachment as well. They wed on June 22 1941. Erwin's mother, who had lived as a child in the United States, received permission to return to the States. However, his father Sally Hirsch was unable to leave Germany and perished in Auschwitz.