Nahum Hoch was inside a gas chamber. It was Simhat Torah 1944, and the
16- year-old, who had experienced several months working in Auschwitz, had
finally failed one of Josef Mengele’s selections. He knew his time had
come as he stood with 900 other Jews, waiting for death to take him.
Hoch is alive and well and has lived here since 1948. A retired engineer living
in Moshav Aseret, he tells his story, remembering dates, names and people with
clarity and total recall. Sometimes he cries and wipes his eyes with a folded
handkerchief. But mostly it is a calm retelling of the incredible events that
saved his life.
Hoch was born in 1928 in Sziget, Romania, a
town of 50,000 Jews. Yiddish was the language he used to speak to his parents
and four younger siblings. His grandfather was an uncle of Robert Maxwell, the
British newspaper tycoon born Jan Ludvik Hoch, five years before
In 1938 the family moved to Temesvar and then to Borsha. The
different areas changed hands over the years from being Romania, then Hungary
and back again. It made no difference to the Jews which country they belonged
to. When the Germans came, they rounded them all up.
the first day of Pessah 1944, all the Jews in the ghetto were told to go into
“There was no food, but the young people went out and
collected some food and brought matzot. We could have escaped, but we didn’t
know what was waiting for us; we were told we were going to work camps. When the
transports started, I took an ax with me to the train, and during the 11-day
journey I was able to hack a hole in the floor of the railcar so at least people
could relieve themselves,” Hoch recounts.
The family reached
Auschwitz-Birkenau and noticed mountains of baggage when they got off the train.
His mother and the smaller children were all sent one way, while Hoch went with
“My father took off his raincoat and put it on me to try and
make me look taller,” he recalls, “but then he too was sent to the left with the
women and children, and I was left alone.”
One of his first jobs was to
collect the excrement around the camp in a wheelbarrow and bury it in a pit.
Hoch looks at my horrified face, and his blue eyes crinkle into a
“That was one of the best jobs going,” he assures me. “You could
go to the kitchens and get food, and you were free to walk all around the
After several months in Auschwitz, the young boy was weak and was
made to undergo a selection.
“Mengele decided that this selection would
be according to height. They put a piece of wood on a post and if you didn’t
reach it, you failed. We understood what it was about, and I managed to
put stones in my shoes to make myself look taller. Yes, I wanted very much to
live, in spite of everything.”
The second time he also survived the
selection, walking past the dreaded Mengele. There were several more
hair-raising episodes, including an attempt by the teenage boys to rebel, but it
came to naught.
Later, when Hoch was called as a witness at the Adolf
Eichmann trial in 1960, he related this event, when the boys were locked up in
punishment blocks for several days. At the end they were brought potatoes and
beetroot soup, and they defiantly flung the desperately needed food on the
“Later, after the guard left, we fell on the potatoes and ate
them from the ground,” he says. “Throwing the food away had been our way
of expressing our contempt because we knew they were deceiving us into thinking
we were going to be allowed to live.”
An hour later, the boys were lined
up to be taken to the area of the gas chambers. They resisted and were shot in
the legs by the SS. They reached a large room like a shower and were told to
undress. Pegs on the walls with numbers were for their clothes, which they were
told they could retrieve later. But they knew this was a trick – there would be
no later – and they threw their clothes on the floor.
“One of the Jewish
sonderkommandos came to us and said, ‘Boys, at least don’t show them you are
worried. Sing, sing!’ Most were too terrified to utter a word. Some were making
confessions. They took us down a small corridor and opened a large door
and pushed us inside. It was completely dark inside, and I heard the sounds of
Seconds, perhaps minutes went by, and the door of the gas
chamber opened. They brought the boys back into the room where they had thrown
“They began to examine each boy, testing his muscles, and
told us to do push-ups, one at a time. I was the third to be told. I was
paralyzed with fear, but somehow I forced myself to do it. They chose 50
boys that way.”
The boys picked up the clothes, any clothes, from the
floor and were taken to the railway station, where they were ordered to unload a
wagon full of potatoes. Apparently the Germans had a shortage of
Many adventures later, at the end of the war, Hoch was
liberated and made his way here.LIFE IN ISRAEL
Even after the suffering
of the war years, Hoch had to spend a few months in Cyprus, arriving here in
1948. He spent some time in Netanya, then moved to Haifa where he lived most of
his life. He married in 1956 and had one daughter and three
Hoch had studied to be a silversmith after the war and
worked at that for a while. But eventually he was able to study engineering and
became a builder. He had many different jobs and at one time ran a cafeteria at
a Haifa railway station.
He was also the founder of a nonprofit for
defending the rights of Holocaust survivors and worked at that for many
Today he lives in Aseret near his grandchildren and enjoys their
company and the many activities provided at the sheltered housing section of the
moshav where he lives.
“Knowing that I have helped to perpetuate my
family, which could have been totally wiped out, is a source of happiness for
me,” he says.