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Mickey Hoch

By BERNIE BELLAN
What would prompt an almost-90-year-old man to fly to Israel (at his own expense) and spend three weeks volunteering on an Israeli army base?
For Mickey Hoch volunteering for Sarel, which is an acronym of the Hebrew words meaning “service for Israel”, is something that he has been doing every two years for the past 15 years.

 

 

Mickey Hoch & other Sar-El volunteers, along with madrichot, this past winter

I’ve known Mickey for quite some time – not well, but enough to know that he has been traveling to Israel to serve on Sarel programs for years. I’d never talked to him much about it beyond asking whether he was going to Israel again – and, when he’d come back, how was his trip.
This year though, when I saw Mickey at the Asper Campus recently and asked him how his trip to Israel had gone, he said to me that I should really write about Sarel because the program could well use more volunteers. Mickey’s daughter Michelle Faintuch (whom I’ve also known for close to 40 years) sent me some pictures of Mickey’s latest sojourn as a Sarel volunteer, but I procrastinated sitting down with Mickey until this past week. (The reason, quite simply, is that I wanted to do his story justice – not simply ask him a few questions over the phone – and writing a story like this takes a fair bit of time.)


We met for coffee at Schmoozer’s and proceeded to chat for over an hour. I told Mickey that I didn’t just want to talk to him about Sarel, I wanted to hear more about his life story – which I didn’t know other than he was a very successful businessman. (Our office actually used to be located next to his in the Inkster Park area many years ago.)
Mickey seemed surprised that I wanted to hear about where he was born, what happened to him during World War II, how he ended up coming to Winnipeg, and ultimately, what led him to volunteer seven different times for Sarel.
But, once he began telling his story, I realized that it would make for compelling reading – which makes me very glad that I asked him to begin at the beginning.
Mickey was born in Romania on April 2, 1929 (which means that you’re reading this after he’s turned 90). Both his parents were merchants, he says. His father sold animal skins, while his mother sold fabrics.


I asked him whether his family was well-to-do, but he said they weren’t: “lower middle class” is how he described his family. The second oldest in his family, Mickey had three brothers and one sister. All his siblings save his oldest brother are still alive, he noted - living in Israel – where his oldest brother also lived.
The Hoch family was very observant, Mickey explained. As a matter of fact, a great-grandfather of his “was a major organizer of the Satmar” Hasidic group – which originated in Romania in 1905.
Romania, however, had a very large element of Nazi sympathizers, known as the Iron Guard. When World War II started, Romania aligned itself with Nazi Germany. The Romanians themselves were eager to join in the slaughter of Jews. Unlike other Eastern European countries which came under Nazi occupation, Romania didn’t require the active involvement of Germans to lead to the massacring of Jews. “Between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews were murdered or died in various forms on Romanian soil, in the war zones of Bessarabia, Bukovina, and in the occupied Soviet territories under Romanian control,” according to Wikipedia.


The Hoch family though was living in an area of Transylvania which was nominally still under Romanian control. The family was forced to leave its village and move into a larger city known as Arad, where they were confined to a ghetto along with other Jews (but not a walled ghetto, Mickey explained.)
One day all the Jews in Arad were ordered to line up on a main street, Mickey said. They were surrounded by Romanian guards – and expected that they were about to be massacred. Suddenly, however, a phalanx of German trucks drove up and the German soldiers ordered the Romanian guards to leave. What had happened – and apparently it was a pattern repeated many times over in other Romanian communities, was that sufficient bribes had been paid to authorities to prevent Jews from being killed. Mickey observed how ironic it was that Jews were actually saved by Germans in this instance.
In any event, Romania’s allegiance to Nazi Germany shifted during the war and, by 1943, the Jews in Romania who were still alive (some 290,000) found themselves safe from further annihilation – including the Hoch family.


Following the war, Mickey was bent on immigrating to British Mandate Palestine. His older brother had already moved there and Mickey wanted to follow in his footsteps.
As he explained to me during our meeting, while he was in Romania, Mickey was an ardent member of Betar, which was a youth group inspired by Ze’ev Jabotinsky – who was also the ideological founder of the Irgun. (Many young Jews in Europe, also throughout the Diaspora, belonged to a variety of groups, all of which had the goal of returning Jews to Palestine, although their political orientations varied widely.)
In 1945 Mickey left Romania – on his own, and made his way first to Austria, then to Italy, where he had hoped to find passage to Palestine. He told me that by that time he had become a member of the Irgun, and subsequently the even more radical Stern Gang. (Both those groups were eventually disbanded when Israel became a state and fighters who had belonged to either group were incorporated into the Haganah.)
Since Italy, at the time, was under the authority of the British army, it was all but impossible for Mickey to find legal passage to Palestine. As it turned out though, prior to the war the Government of Canada had issued 1,000 visas that were to be given to Jewish children under the age 18. Unfortunately, once the war began, it was impossible for anyone to find safe passage to Canada, yet those visas still remained. Mickey explained that he was able to obtain one of those visas – thus, his arrival to Canada in 1948.


With the help of the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Jewish Immigrant Aid Service, Mickey made his way to Winnipeg where – like thousands of other refugees who had survived the war, he was greeted at the CPR Station by a welcoming member of the Jewish community here – in Mickey’s case someone by the name of Glassman.
By 1951 the rest of the Hoch family had immigrated to the new State of Israel, but Mickey was beginning to forge a successful career in Winnipeg.
“I started as a cap maker at Crown Cap”, he said. At the time the company was owned by a Winograd. It’s had several owners since, Mickey noted, and is presently owned by Cole Leinburd. Also in 1951 Mickey married. By 1954 he had started his own business, 20th Century Headwear (later 20th Century Apparel), which began with the production of caps, later moving into the production of jackets and jeans as well. At one time, Mickey says, he had over 400 employees.
Later Mickey opened a new business, Marathon Thread, which is now run by his daughter, Michele Faintuch, although Mickey does go into work regularly.

In 1957 Mickey went to Israel for the first time. It had been 12 years since he had seen any members of his family. He has been returning to Israel regularly ever since, but it was when a longtime friend of his, the late Israel Agasi, told Mickey about a program known as Sarel, that Mickey found a new purpose in going to Israel.

Sarel was created in 1982. Here is what Sarel’s website has to say about how it came into being: “In the summer of 1982, in the midst of the Galilee War, Golan Heights settlements faced the disastrous prospect of losing their entire agricultural crop. The majority of able-bodied settlers were called up for army reserve duty and entire farms, with crops already ripened, were left unattended, due to the acute manpower shortage. Dr. Aharon Davidi (z”l ), the former head of the I.D.F. Paratroopers and Infantry Corps, was then directing the Golan Heights community and cultural activities.
“Touched by the settlers’ distress, he sent a number of friends as a recruitment team to the United States. Within a few weeks, some 650 volunteers arrived in Israel to lend their support through volunteer labor. Realizing the merits of that action, those first volunteers expressed the wish that the volunteer project be perpetuated.       
“As a result, in the Spring of 1983, “Sar-El” – The National Project for Volunteers for Israel – was founded as a non-profit, non-political organization (‘Sar-El’ is the Hebrew acronym meaning ‘Service for Israel’.).
“Over the years, volunteers from other countries came to partake in the project, and to date, Sar-El is represented in over 30 countries worldwide. Historically, Sar-El’s greatest number of volunteers have come from Volunteers for Israel (V.F.I.) in the U.S.A. and Volontariat Civil (U.P.I.) in France.”

Volunteers range in age from 18-year-olds to some, like Mickey, who are into their 90s. (He tells me that one of the volunteers was 94!)
 What do Sarel volunteers do? Here is how one volunteer described it in a post on the Sarel website: “They do jobs, which need to be done but require manpower and resources the Israeli Government finds difficult to allocate. Jobs like storage, transportation, renovation, maintenance, gardening, food preparation, cleaning, even waste disposal. Instead of hiring, outsourcing or using soldiers, Israeli Army uses volunteers at the minimal cost – food and lodgings.”

Mickey’s most recent Sarel experience was actually the longest amount of time he has spent volunteering for Sarel at one time: three weeks. Until his most recent experience Mickey had been volunteering for two weeks at a time, he told me.
I asked him to describe a typical day as a Sarel volunteer. Here is what he said is the usual routine: Up at 6, breakfast at 7, flag raising at 8, work until noon, two hour lunch break, work again until 5, dinner at 6, then different programs after 7.
The programs, Mickey explained, are organized by “madrichot” (female leaders), and usually consist of a speaker. Mickey himself has been asked to tell his life story upon occasion.
Volunteers are now put up in quite comfortable lodgings on the various army bases to which they are assigned. That is quite a departure from past experience, Mickey noted, as conditions used to be “quite terrible”. It was after he personally approached the head of the Sarel program the last time Mickey had been in Israel (in 2017) to point out how inadequate facilities were for volunteers that wholesale improvements were made to the program, Mickey said.
“The first time I was there I didn’t even have a pillow,” Mickey observed. Now they sleep two to a room, on comfortable beds – with pillows.

So, what type of person volunteers for Sarel? They come from all walks of life, according to Mickey. “We’ve had doctors who aren’t too proud to clean the toilets and the shower room,” he noted. About 10% of the volunteers aren’t Jewish, Mickey also mentioned.
I asked Mickey what kind of work he did during his latest stint as a volunteer. “We were packing and shipping kits for search and rescue units”, he answered, also kits for the army. Volunteers were put to work in huge warehouses where vast numbers of supplies, including medications, bandages, and other surgical supplies, were laid out on shelves, and then packaged into the kits.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article though, Mickey had approached me with an eye to having an article written about Sarel. As he explained during our conversation, the number of volunteers has sadly diminished of late. Further, Israelis themselves labour under a misconception about the program, thinking that volunteers have all their expenses paid by the Israeli government.
That is not at all the case; volunteers are responsible for paying their own way to Israel. Once there, of course, they do not have to pay for anything else – unless they want to spend their leisure time elsewhere than in hotels that are provided for volunteers by Sarel on their off days. Mickey noted that most volunteers do prefer to spend the two days a week that they are not required to be on the base in facilities other than the Sarel-provided hotels.

I said to Mickey that I can’t help but marvel at how sharp and in what great shape he is. (I should note that our meeting took place at the Campus because Mickey had asked to meet with me after his workout.)
I asked him how often he works out and he responded: Six days a week, starting at around 8 each morning. “I do some light exercises,” he continued. “I walk, I use some of the equipment.”
But if you really want to be shamed by realizing how much better shaped Mickey is than people half his age, consider this: Mickey is still an avid cyclist. When he goes for a ride with his group, which he does regularly in the summer, it’s typically for a 45 kilometre spin.
Until recently, he was also a dedicated tennis player, a skier, curler, and bowler. He’s cut out everything except the exercising at the Rady JCC and the cycling – but, as already noted, he also still goes into his office at Marathon Thread most days as well.  His two older sons, Irv and Jeffrey, took over the other part of the business and Mickey closed down Century Apparel in Winnipeg. Irv and Jeffrey’s business is  known as Century 21 Promotions, based in Seattle.)

Mickey also spends a fair bit of time fundraising, he told me  – for two organizations in particular: The Simkin Centre and the Ride for MS (Multiple Sclerosis).

At the end of our meeting, Mickey asked me why I wanted to know so much about his life. “I thought we were going to talk about Sarel”, he said.
I tell him that his story is so fascinating that it would be a shame not to put his Sarel experience into a much larger context. Mickey Hoch is one of those many individuals who came through the horrors of World War II and, despite all that they endured, have shown just an amazing resilience. There aren’t that many left, but each one of those survivors has an amazing story to tell. To meet someone so full of life at age 90 – and you’d be hard put to think that Mickey is anywhere close to that age, is truly inspiring. And – if this article might motivate one or two others to think of volunteering for Sarel, well then, it was worth writing Mickey’s story.

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