Michal Hochman: The Man of Plenty
When Michal Hochman sang at the Polish Consulate in New York City recently, at an event commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, it was an emotional event. Some people cried. While the songs from Mr. Hochman’s recent album, Tych Miasteczek Nie Ma Juz, not yet officially released, reflect the Jewish experience, he likes to describe them, more broadly, as nostalgic. “I always choose songs that give me the goose bumps,” Mr. Hochman, who sings in Polish, explains.
The very first songs that moved him were by Elvis Presley. “Elvis represented the west,” Mr. Hochman, born in 1944, he says, recalling his teenage years. “Everyone was listening to Elvis on the radio, because his records weren’t available in Poland back then.” When some friends were starting a jazz band, Mr. Hochman agreed to be the lead singer. “I sang American songs, even though my English was terrible,” he adds. While, as Mr. Hochman acknowledges, it’s never easy to make it as an artist, he happened to be at the right place at the right time: in Lublin, where the music scene has always been strong. Mr. Hochman’s first Polish song, “Konik Na Biegunach,” became a hit. By1967 Mr. Hochman was already performing in singing competitions in different cities in Poland, and winning many of them; that is, until politics interfered with his musical career. In 1968, as a result of anti-Semitic policies introduced in Poland, Mr. Hochman’s parents, who were of Jewish descent, had to give up their business. Fearing further persecution, the Hochmans fled to America. When the family arrived in New York City, Mr. Hochman was 25 years old. Not many people showed up to his first concert abroad, which coincided with a winter storm. “I realized I couldn’t make a living as a singer,” he concluded.
Mr. Hochman’s first job in the city was working in a shipping department. The problem was that most of his co-workers spoke Spanish, and he wanted to learn English. He confessed his dissatisfaction to a supervisor. The supervisor’s wife, Dorothy, agreed to hire Mr. Hochman. The woman was Dorothy Weinberger, and the job was in the membership office of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “At first, I made $2 per hour,” Mr. Hochman remembers. But he did collect Barbara Streisand’s and Ms. Nixon’s tickets for the 100th anniversary gala of the museum. After two years at the MET, where Mr. Hochman had helped computerize the files and worked as a key punch operator, he applied to the University of Pennsylvania, for a degree in Environmental Protection. When he asked his professors back from Poland for recommendation letters, they wrote two lines about him. “Those letters wouldn’t get me anywhere,” he laughs. Ms. Weinberg stepped in and wrote a proper “American-style” recommendation letter. While Mr. Hochman was pursuing his studies, he received a job offer from the Department of Environmental Protection in New Jersey. He took it, stayed for 29 years, and retired in 2002. Then it was time to sing again.
Mr. Hochman has recorded two new albums since his retirement. He has also performed concerts in Poland. He now splits his time between his house in Roosevelt, NJ, and the Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn home of his partner, Larissa Baldovin, whom he calls “Laryska.” (Mr. Hochman fittingly met Ms. Baldovin at one of his concerts, 13 years ago. “The timing was perfect. She’d just broken up with her husband, I’d just broken up with my wife,” he describes the beginning of their love story.) Asked how he earned the title of “ambassador of Polish culture,” as he’s been referred to for many years, Mr. Hochman is modest. “It all started during communism. Today people attend events at the Polish consulate, but back then, you didn’t know if you’d get out, so no one went.” Instead, Mr. Hochman opened his NJ residence to Polish artists, including Ewa Demarczyk and Jerzy Stuhr.
Mr. Hochman has many homelands. He was born in Siberia, where his parents had been sent to forced labor camps via NKVD orders. In 1946, the family moved back to Poland. And, since 1968, Mr. Hochman has been living in the US, although these days he often travels to Poland. “My home is here when I’m here, but when I’m in Poland, I feel at home there,” he confesses, and admits that it sounds strange.
By Ewa Bronowicz