Obituary: Lea Hochman was a Holocaust survivor who spoke about faith and miracles

Sheila Lampert and her mother Lea Hochman (Credit: Elliot Sylman)

Lea Hochman, a Holocaust survivor who dedicated herself to teaching about the horrors of antisemitism and the importance of faith, died in Toronto on Aug. 6, two weeks shy of her 101st birthday.

Hochman (nee Zimmerman) was born in Pohorce, a small town in Poland with only nine Jewish families.

“My mom would often say that she ‘hid in plain sight’ during the Shoah, relying on her ability to pass herself off as a Gentile. She used to refer to herself as an actor without a script,” said Sheila Lampert, the youngest of Hochman’s three daughters.

“She did not have a change of clothes for 17 months. She realized later that if she had been able to change, she would have lost the piece of matzah that was sewn into her clothes. She credits the blessing from a rabbi who gifted the matzah for helping save her and her brothers, Israel and Hersh. They were the only ones who had the precious matzah and the only family members that survived.”

During the war, Hochman travelled from to farm to farm. While she was never paid for her work, she received food and a place to sleep, usually in the barn.

She met and married her husband, Abraham Hochman, who had survived in Siberia, in a displaced persons camp in Germany. The couple travelled to Israel via cattle boat in 1949. Two of their daughters, Ada and Shosh (Susan), were born in Israel. 

 In 1959, the couple immigrated to Montreal to join Lea’s brothers. Life was hard. They did not speak English or French, lived in a tiny apartment and worried every month that they would not cover the rent. 

“Then my mom became pregnant,” Lampert said. “She was very angry at God. All she wanted was a few more dollars for the necessities of life. Instead, God sent her a baby? On top of that, she was told it was very likely that her child would be born with special needs and was advised to terminate the pregnancy. At the last moment, she told my father, ‘If God is sending me this baby now, perhaps this is the child that will bring me a sip of water in my old age.’”

That baby turned out to be Lampert, who, as executive director of Reena Foundation, supports the very population her mother was advised to avoid.

Hochman taught herself to sew and helped provide for the family. She became known for the beautiful hand-beaded gowns she created.

After her husband died in Montreal in 1989, she moved to Toronto to be with her daughters. 

Proof that it’s never too late to contribute to society, Hochman started a public speaking career when she was in her late 80s, educating Jews and non-Jews about her experiences in the Shoah.

Her first speaking appearance took place at Toronto’s Crestwood Preparatory College as part of an initiative that included videotaped interviews with individuals who shared their wartime experiences. 

“I want to leave the legacy for people who don’t believe that something like that existed,” Hochman told The CJN at the time. “I am very happy that I was able to come today and to let some other kids see that if you are very anxious to survive, you’ll do anything for your survival. If one child learned anything today, I’ll be happy.”

Hochman spoke at schools, synagogues, to students going on the March of the Living, and to anyone who wanted to listen, Lampert said.

“Her topic was always ‘The Miracles of ha-Shem.’ She was living proof that miracles exist. She wanted to impart the importance of hope to the next generation. She was worried. She saw that although we live in a time of so much material wealth, people appear unhappy and unappreciative of all the blessings God has bestowed upon us. She wanted people to have emunah—faith that even during dark times, we need to perform mitzvahs and just hold on. Things happen for a reason. She had lived through so much, so when she spoke, her message resonated.”

Hochman’s efforts to educate today’s generation about the horrors of antisemitism, intolerance and hatred did not go unnoticed. In 2012, she was honoured by Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty and the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem. Lampert also received a condolence call from Premier Doug Ford when Hochman died.

A testament to her optimistic outlook on life, when she was shut in by COVID, Hochman saw an opportunity.

“She liked to say that ‘nothing ever bad happens without something good,’” Lampert said. “The way my mom saw it, Zoom gave her the opportunity to speak to people all over the world.”

Her last speaking date was just three weeks before she died. 

Hochman was also an author, working with a volunteer from the Azrieli Foundation to record and ultimately transcribe her stories. It was never published as a book but is available online.

“My mom felt it was very important to record it for the next generation even though it was a painful process for her,” Lampert said.

Last year, with all the COVID restrictions, Lea shared her fear with one of her favourite students that she would not be able to hear the shofar for the High Holidays. 

That was the catalyst for Shofar on the Corner, an initiative of Chabad and Jewish Youth Network, to allow people to hear the shofar safely and close to home. 

This year, the program is dedicated in Hochman’s memory.

“My mom was my biggest role model,” Lampert said. “She taught me that it is important to make a good name for yourself. Never turn down the opportunity to do a mitzvah. Never look for honour. Be humble and honour will find you.”

Hochman was buried in Montreal and is survived by her three daughters, nine grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren.