Only one week before he was to light a ceremonial torch at the Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem, Peretz 'Pavel' Hochman, a survivor who fought the Nazis in Poland, passed away.
Hochman, who was to celebrate his 86th birthday in two weeks, was one of the heroes of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, whose exploits were recorded in the book "The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square”.
Hochman was born in Warsaw, the seventh son in a traditional family. With the outbreak of the Second World War, the family moved to the city's center, to an area that would later be included within the confines of the Warsaw ghetto. When the situation in the ghetto deteriorated, Hochman left home and escaped to the Polish side under a false identity. He was supplied with false papers, identifying him as a Polish boy named 'Antony Zweda'. He made money from singing in the streets and selling cigarettes and newspapers in the Three Crosses Square, along with a group of other Jewish children. Their clients included both Poles and S.S. men. At nights, they would sleep in abandoned houses and in cemeteries. Their incredible exploits were recorded in the book "The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square” written by Joseph Zamian, who functioned as their contact with the Jewish underground.
Hochman would smuggle food and clothes to his parents in the ghetto, until his father died of hunger, and his mother was shot to death by a German officer. His brother, who hid in a Polish village, was handed over to the Germans by a Polish farmer in exchange for a bottle of Vodka and two kilos of sugar. Another brother escaped to Russia, but all traces of his fate were lost.
In 1944, when he was 17 years old, he joined the Polish revolt against the Germans in Warsaw, along with his 13 year old brother Zenek. The two disguised themselves as Polish youths, Pavel and Zenon Borkowski. The two were given nicknames – Hochman was dubbed 'Zvaniak' (wily) and Zenek 'Micky Bandita'.
Peretz participated in actions directed against the German army, and won five medals of honor and citations, among them 'The Cross of Courage' and 'The Cross of Partisans', bestowed on him by senior Polish Army officers. His actions as part of the Polish resistance to the Nazis were rewarded with the Polish Republic’s Award of Excellence, with knighthood bestowed upon him in 2009 by the Polish president Lech Kaczynsky.
On October 2 1944 the resistance fighters surrendered in the center of Warsaw. Peretz was led off to a prisoner of war camp, as a Polish prisoner. On May 3 1945, the Germans abandoned the camp and he was free. He subsequently served another year in the Polish army.
He later set out on a tortuous road to Palestine, as part of the “Bricha” (escape) movement which transferred many displaced refugees to Palestine (illegally) after the war. Together with a group of youths disguised as Greeks, he travelled to Katowice, Czechoslovakia and France.
They set sail on board a retired American warship that would later become part of the newly-established Israeli Navy. While at sea, the group transferred to another dilapidated boat on its way to Eretz-Yisrael. The boat was discovered by a British reconnaissance plane and was stopped. On June 15, 1946 the illegal immigrants (ma’apilim) hung up a sign with the boat’s new Hebrew name, “Biriya”. They were removed from the boat on July 1 and placed in the Atlit detention camp. After his release, Hochman joined kibbutz Sha’ar Hagolan. In 1948 he joined the Palmach and served in its Negev Brigade. He was wounded in action, but recovered and rejoined his unit. He later fought in all of Israel’s wars until 1973.
Hochman received citations in Israel as well. He was given the Fighters against the Nazis medal and the Underground Fighters medal, as well as war medals for the wars he fought in Israel. “Hochman was always an optimist, who used to meet, drink and sing songs with his fellow fighters from Poland and Israel”, the historian Mordeachai Naor, Hochman’s relative, told Haaretz. Naor remembers Hochman saying that “we suffered so much in the Diaspora that we now have to celebrate our independence by singing and merriment”.
Over the years he visited Poland and was warmly received there by the authorities and media, as well as by former friends. Last year, after falling ill, he arranged a final visit with family members. “They followed every station along the routes of battles and escape that were taken by the fighting boy who sold cigarettes”, said Naor.