|Holocaust survivor shares inspirational story|
|Written by April Peregoy|
“On April 14, 1945 a starving emaciated Polish lad lay in the gutter near the electrically charged perimeter fence of Buchenwald Concentration Camp with the guns of war sounding in the distance. His name was Benny Hochman, and this is his story.”
So begins the first chapter of Benny Hochman’s autobiography, “From Hell to Here,” which serves as an account of the author’s life from his days as a boy in Poland to his five-year imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps and his eventual immigration to Sidney, Neb., where he has become a successful citizen and community advocate.
For the last few decades, Hochman has traveled all over Nebraska, Colorado, South Dakota, Wyoming and other states, sharing his story of survival with those who want to hear it. Thanks largely to VFW Post #6482 Quartermaster Steve Millage, Holyoke community members and JR/SR High students were fortunate to hear Hochman’s story, from his own mouth, when he spoke at the HHS auditorium Thursday afternoon, March 19.
His story of survival, of triumph over tragedy, obviously touched audience members of all ages. After his speech, a long line was formed in the HHS commons area to buy his autobiography. All proceeds from the book go towards scholarships of Sidney’s Western Nebraska Community College students.
All the books were quickly sold out, and another 25 people ordered a copy. Those interested in ordering a signed copy can still do so by calling the HHS office at 854-2284.
Those fortunate enough to grab one Thursday afternoon were able to meet the author as he signed their copies.
Tears of sadness over what he went through were shed, sincere appreciation for sharing his story was shown and war stories from vets who served in World War II were shared with the distinguished octogenarian, who had survived the unimaginable and lived to share with them a story of hope and, above all else, freedom.
“I stand here, the only person in my family that survived Poland,” he began.
He then talked about his family and the life he lived as a boy in his hometown of Londz, Poland before the Nazi invasion. His father, a German, and mother, who was from Ukraine, ran the town bakery with the help of their three children: Benny, his older brother Bullick and younger sister Rosha.
“It was a wonderful life,” said Hochman.
But all that changed in 1939, when the Nazis invaded Poland. By this time, Hochman’s older brother, Bullick, had graduated high school and become an officer in the Polish army. During the invasion, he was captured but was released a short time later and returned home.
One night, when Hochman was 16 years old, a squad of Gestapo broke down the door of the family’s home, saying they were under orders to take away Hochman’s older brother. When his mother resisted, she was knocked to the floor by the butt of a gun. Hochman went to help his mother up and the leader then told him he was coming with them now too. Both boys were marched to the local railroad station, where they were herded into a boxcar crammed full with over 100 people.
Hochman and his family were not Jewish. The reason the Gestapo came looking for his brother was because he was educated and an officer, and the Germans were purging Poland of educated people who could possibly resist the new German government.
During the train ride to Auschwitz, which lasted several days, the people in the boxcars were not given food or water, making them all very weak. Some did not even survive the journey.
Hochman’s brother became very sick during the trip, and, when they finally arrived at the Auschwitz camp, was too weak to fight for the meager scraps of food they were given. As a result, he grew even more weaker every day.
As Hochman explained it, every morning, the prisoners were lined up and counted. Those who were too sick to stand were shot on the spot. He and one of his friends did their best to help his brother stand through these line-ups, but one day, he was too sick to stand, even with help.
“He couldn’t get on his feet, he didn’t want to get on his feet, and he didn’t want no help any more. They shot my brother beside my feet and killed him.”
At this point, Hochman said, he became an animal. “I became a beast,” he said. “They’re not going to do that to me. I am going to kill before I die. And if there’s anything that looks like food, I don’t care about you or anybody else, I will get it.”
After spending some days in the camp, Hochman said the prisoners were divided into two lines. The fittest were sent to the right line and the others, the left. Those on the left were marched out of the camp into the woods. Soon after, those left in the camp heard machine gun fire. No one returned from the forest.
Hochman and the rest of the prisoners had tattoos placed on each of their left forearms with an ice pick and ink. He still has his number, B-3156, on his forearm today.
When the gas house at the camp was completed, Hochman was one of four men chosen to work there. His job was to collect the dead bodies of those who had been killed in the gas house, load them on a cart, and transport them to the nearby crematorium. He said later on, when the number of persons killed in the gas house became too large for the crematorium to handle, they dug deep pits in the ground and built fires in the bottom, where they threw the corpses to be burned.
He and his fellow workers became known at the camp as “commandos.” Before loading the bodies on their cart, they were required to remove any jewelry or gold teeth that had not been previously collected. If the item could not be removed by pulling on it, their orders were to hack off the finger or body part with a machete.
An image that has obviously been deeply engrained into Hochman’s memory all these years, was that of a tiny baby, on top of a cart full of dead bodies, whose chest was still moving.
“When I was living in Nebraska, I asked my friend Dr. Karrer, why that little baby’s heart was still beating when all the adults were dead,” he said. “He told me, they just have a stronger heart. Why, I don’t know. They want to keep living.”
Hochman went on to say he is not proud of the things he did to survive the concentration camps. Again, he said, “I became a terrible animal.” He fought other prisoners over scraps of food, even stomping on people’s hands to get to it.
“I’m not very proud of it,” he said, “but I am here, alive.”
After four years of life in the concentration camps, the Russians began invading Poland, and the Germans were forced to retreat. But rather than allowing the Russians to liberate the prisoners at Auschwitz, they instead marched them to the Buchenwald camp in Germany.
The march took place in March of 1944, during bitter cold and snow. The prisoners grew very weak. If any one of them stumbled or fell, they were shot or torn apart by the guards’ dogs. According to Hochman, only 20 percent of those who marched out of Auschwitz made it to the Buchenwald camp.
There were no gas chambers in Buchenwald, so Hochman could not be used as a commando anymore. Instead, he was put on a crew to work on the Autobahn.
He recalled his nights in the barracks at Buchenwald. There was no bedding, and it was so cold all the people huddled together on the floor for warmth. The rats, he said, were terrible. If a person was not strong enough to shake them off, they would bite off chunks of flesh.
He added, if someone happened to die during the night, the body was placed on the opposite side of the room as far away from everybody else as possible. In the morning, he said, the body would be so eaten up by the rats it was unrecognizable.
Hochman said he could also never forget the “clothesline” in Buchenwald. Set up near the kitchen, where the prisoners received their rations of soup, the clothesline was used to hang prisoners that were accused of committing crimes by the guards. Five to 10 prisoners were hung at a time and would be left there until the next set of hangings, which were carried out by the best friends of the accused.
“I never saw the clothesline empty,” said Hochman, adding, “The terrible thing about it is, in the winter, we would ignore it. We got used to them. But in the summer, there was a cloud of flies. You could not swallow your soup without flies in it.”
Another recollection he shared was that of Ilse Koch, the wife of an SS guard. “Talk about a beast,” he said. “There is no other in the world that could do what she did.”
He described how Koch would come riding into camp on her palomino horse, carrying a bull whip. The prisoners were expected to bow to her when she came around, and if they did not do it fast enough for her, she would whip them to death.
“She was a devil, that one,” he added. “No man can stand what she did. I couldn’t.”
Having spent over a year in Buchenwald, Hochman eventually grew so weak from hunger that he knew the end was close at hand. But miraculously, just in time, the Americans came to liberate the camp.
An American soldier, First Sergeant Charles Kinney from Evansville, Ind., found Hochman. He tried giving him a piece of hard candy, but Hochman was too weak to reach for it. Kinney picked him up and carried him to his jeep, driving him to the camp of Signal Battalion 926.
Upon his arrival, the camp cook brought out lots of food for him, which Hochman said he did not eat, “I inhaled it,” he said. However, his body could not handle the large amount of food and he became very ill soon after.
He spent six weeks in the army field hospital. When describing how kind the Americans were to him during his time in the hospital, Hochman became emotional. “They gave me all kinds of things,” he said.
When he was well again, he returned to the 926th and became a T-5 corporal. He was so skinny, weighing only 78 pounds, that the army could not find him a uniform that fit.
Until the end of the war, he worked as an interpreter for the batallion. During that time he fell in love with the American soldiers and decided he wanted to go to the U.S. when the war was over. The family of a fellow soldier, Ed Townley of Lebanon, Neb., agreed to sponsor him and invited him to live with them.
Upon his arrival in Nebraska, Hochman took a job with the local telephone company in McCook, Neb. and married his first wife, whom he had three children with.
After a few years, he was transferred to Sidney, Neb., where he remained ever since. Over the years, he became involved in as many community activities as possible, including serving on the city council and chamber of commerce.
In 1960, Hochman traveled to Los Angeles, Calif., thinking he was going there to speak to Jaycees (Junior Chamber of Commerce members) at an annual banquet. Instead, he found himself walking onto the set of “The Ralph Edwards Show,” where he was met on stage by his family and the Townsends. On the show he was presented with a camera, cufflinks and a Ford Falcon.
Some years after that, he began speaking to various groups on his experiences during the Holocaust. His goal in sharing his story, he said in his book, “is to share with others my love for our free country. Sometimes people tend to forget that freedom is everybody’s responsibility. Stand up for freedom; it’s worth fighting for.”
In 2001, he published his autobiography, “From Hell to Here,” and in 2002, he received an honorable doctorate degree from Chadron State College in Nebraska. “We have a wonderful life,” said Hochman of he and his wife.
Hochman’s first wife died of cancer, and his second wife, Marie, now travels with him on his journeys across surrounding states. Though he is now 85, and his children beg him to slow down, Hochman said he will keep telling his story as long as he can tell it.
“I want you all to hear from me. I have loved America from day one, when I met my first American soldier, to as long as I live. It means so much to me to live in this country that I never take the flag down. For me, this is my heart: America.”
His final words to the Holyoke audience were directed specifically to the JR/SR High students:
“Don’t forget, when you’re old enough to take part in our government, you have the duty to vote for who you want to vote for. If somebody comes and tells you that you have to vote for so-and-so, tell them to go fly a kite.”
Again getting choked up, he continued, “You have the right to fight for freedom, for liberty, for choice. Go home and tell your folks that I said, if you don’t vote the next election—for the dogcatcher, for the mayor, for the governor, senator, or whoever, and they don’t vote—tell them, from me to you, ‘Shame on you, Mom and Dad, shame on you.’”
“I never miss it,” he added, finishing with, “Thank you very much and God bless America.”
With this, the crowd rose to its feet to give Hochman a well-deserved standing ovation.