Warsaw Ghetto hero, a ‘Cigarette Seller,’ dies

Polish resistance fighter Peretz Hochman’s wife, Sima, will light his torch at Yad Vashem on Holocaust Remembrance Day

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Peretz Hochman circa 1942. (photo credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Peretz Hochman circa 1942. (photo credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Peretz Hochman, one of the last of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising heroes, died March 31, two weeks shy of his 86th birthday. He was to be buried Tuesday afternoon in Herzliya.

Hochman was scheduled to light a memorial torch at next week’s Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem, where the theme for this year’s ceremony is Defiance and Rebellion during the Holocaust, 70 Years Since the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Hochman, whose story was told in Joseph Zhimian’s 1962 book “The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square,” was one of a group of youths who escaped the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, assumed false Aryan identities and survived by peddling cigarettes.

Warsaw Ghetto uprising hero Peretz Hochman. (photo credit: Israel Hadari/Yad Vashem)
Warsaw Ghetto uprising hero Peretz Hochman. (photo credit: Israel Hadari/Yad Vashem)

In an interview Hochman gave to the Virtual Shtetl project, he described his childhood. Born in Warsaw in 1927, he was the fourth of eight siblings in a middle-class family and was schooled in both a traditional heder and a Polish institution. From October 1940 Hochman and part of his family were imprisoned in the ghetto (his older siblings remained outside its walls). As the situation worsened there, Hochman would sneak out, using his little brother Zanek as a lookout, to smuggle in food and clothing for the family from the black market.

His father, Benjamin, died of starvation and his mother, Miriam, was killed during the summer of 1942. One brother, Itzik, was caught and sold to the Nazis. His informers received two kilos of sugar and a liter of vodka in return.

Peretz and Zanek escaped the ghetto in 1942 and, with a group of Jewish children who had also assumed Christian identities, sang and sold cigarettes and newspapers at the bustling Three Crosses Square, hiding in stairwells at night. Often, Hochman stated, he would attend church on Sundays to “enhance his Polish image.” (Several of his fellow escapees’ Jewish identities were discovered and they were shot.)

Author Zhimian, a member of the Jewish underground, supplied the children with Polish identity cards and suggested they move to a section of the city under Red Army control.

Hochman and his brother remained, however, and volunteered in the Breakers Through unit of the August 1944 Warsaw Uprising, where he collected unused bullets from corpses in the heat of the battle.

Cover of 'The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square'
Cover of ‘The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square’

“Every time they needed someone to perform a complicated mission, I volunteered,” said Peretz in his Yad Vashem testimony. “All I wanted was to hurt Germans, to take revenge on them. In a sense, something within me was already dead, and therefore I was not afraid of death.”

After the Polish resistance surrendered to the Germans, Hochman and his brother were imprisoned and eventually taken to Stalag 4B in Milburg. They were released by the Red Cross in May 1945 and Hochman made aliya in 1946.

“Even when others were afraid, he, a 15-year old in the Polish uprising, volunteered for every mission, receiving a number of awards for his courage,” said Rachel Barkai, director of the Yad Vashem Public Relations Department. “Like many Holocaust survivors, when he arrived in the Land of Israel he joined the struggle to build the state and rebuild his life.”

He enlisted into the Palmach and then the IDF, where he fought with distinction. In 1997 Hochman lit a torch at the annual Independence Day ceremony.

Wife Sima, with whom he has three children and six grandchildren, will light his torch at next week’s Yad Vashem ceremony.

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