Veterans: Indomitable spirit

As a teenager, Nahum Hoch survived the horror of Auschwitz by a hair’s breadth. Today, he basks in the warmth of his family and community.

Nahum Hoch 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nahum Hoch 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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.
But 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 Nahum.
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.
On the first day of Pessah 1944, all the Jews in the ghetto were told to go into the synagogue.
“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 his father.
“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 smile.
“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 camp.”
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 ground.
“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 weeping.”
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 their clothes.
“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 manpower.
Many adventures later, at the end of the war, Hoch was liberated and made his way here.
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 grandchildren.
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 years.
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.