Byrd: Remembering a man who cherished being an American
Imagine, just for a moment, that you're a prisoner held in a camp with hundreds of other prisoners. Food is provided, but only in scraps. There's not enough for everyone and the ones who grow weak from starvation are relieved of their agony with a bullet in the head.
Imagine, just for a moment, that it's your brother who has grown weak from illness. He won't eat. He's too weak to stomach what food you try to share with him. Prisoners are to line up every day for a count, but your brother has grown far too weak to stand. You offer him help to try to save his life, but he doesn't want to stand anymore.
As he lays at your feet, his suffering ends abruptly. The gunshot echoes in your ears. Your knees tremble, but you dare not fall.
What would you do to survive?
"I became a beast," Benny Hochman told any number of audiences. "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."
By the time I met Benny in 2007, he had long ago become a different man than the one discovered by American soldiers in a ditch in 1945. I was working as a reporter in Sidney, Neb., and Benny was a frequent visitor to the newspaper, especially during the time of year in which he helped raise money for the endowment fund of the local community college.
In his late 80s and far less agile than I imagine he was as a teenager struggling for survival in Nazi concentration camps, Benny harbored an absolute delight in his efforts to help other people further their education. Even from behind his glasses, you could see in his eyes a love and wonder one might expect to see reflected in the eyes of a man who has just met his first grandchild, not one talking about young people earning an associate's degree.
For this Poland native and Holocaust survivor, the opening paragraphs of this article are not imagination. After the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Benny's life was on a course for something terrible. Though he and his family weren't Jewish, his brother was educated and a member of the Polish army. For those reasons, he was targeted by the Gestapo in 1940. When they came for his brother, they took Benny too.
Benny's brother grew ill on the train ride to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. He continued to grow weaker until, as I wrote above, the Nazis relinquished him into the cold embrace of death.
Benny vowed that his death would not come at the hands of the Nazis. He made decisions that, as he told numerous audiences over the past few decades, he wasn't very proud of but he did what he had to do to survive.
Eventually Benny was placed on a gashouse cleanup crew, where his job was to remove dead bodies and transport them to a crematorium. When the crematorium was full, they burned the bodies in a pit.
Benny was marched to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp in Germany after spending some years in Auschwitz. During his time there, he grew weak and eventually found himself too weak to move.
His autobiography, "From Hell to Here," states that "On April 14, 1945, a starving emaciated Polish lad lay in the gutter near the electrically charged perimeter fence of Buchenwald Concentration Camp with guns of war sounding in the distance."
An American soldier found him. He offered Benny a piece of hard candy. Benny was too weak to take it. The soldier scooped him up and took him to an Army hospital to recuperate. Following his recovery, Benny helped the U.S. Army as a translator.
I marveled at the look in Benny's eyes as he spoke with a heavy Polish accent, "I fell in love with the American soldiers." He knew he wanted to become an American and did so after moving to Nebraska when the war ended. He took up a job with a telephone company and worked in the same line of business until his retirement.
Benny was a relentless servant to the community of Sidney. He was involved on every level from city politics to the downtown neighborhood get-togethers. But his passion, his absolute undying passion, was to encourage others to seek higher education.
I am saddened to report that Benny Hochman passed away on Wednesday. He was 89 years old. He leaves behind an arm bearing a Nazi identification number, an autobiography so we may never forget the atrocities he witnessed, and YouTube videos of him recounting his tale on one or more of his trips throughout Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado and the Dakotas.
Left behind to celebrate his life are a loving wife, children, step-children and grandchildren, and perhaps the entire town of Sidney. Those of us who were fortunate enough to have met Benny will celebrate his life no matter where we are.
I'll leave you this week with a quote from one of Benny's talks, as reported by The Holyoke (Colo.) Enterprise: "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."
Byrd is the news editor of The Dickinson Press. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him at klarkbyrd.