Interview by Mariam Makatsaria

Photo courtesy of the Jewish Studies Program.

This year, Kent State University’s Jewish Studies Program celebrates its 40th anniversary May 17 with an evening of cocktails, dinner and a tribute to the program’s longest-serving leaders Herbert Hochhauser and the late Saul Friedman. The event will honor the meritorious contributions of Hochhauser in integrating Holocaust education at Kent State and shaping survival narratives through compelling documentaries. His films, which serve more than a cathartic purpose, earned him seven Emmy awards and the self-assurance and spiritual audacity he was stripped off throughout his childhood.

Born in Berlin to Jewish parents, Hochhauser was separated from his family during World War II. Smuggled by The Salvation Army and the Quakers, Hochhauser lived as a refugee in Swiss and French orphanages. In 1948, after reuniting with his family, Hochhauser immigrated to the United States and settled down in Cleveland.

Although he was welcomed in the country upon arrival, Hochhauser struggled to assimilate into his new life. He couldn’t speak English, and had to take special classes with students who immigrated from overseas. In about six months, Hochhauser was asked to take an IQ test. Unable to read most of the questions, he randomly filled the circles on his test answer sheet.

His test result was a 78—a score that indicates borderline intelligence, which is just below average cognitive functioning. Considered a burden to the country, Hochhauser was sent to Collinwood High School, which offered academic and vocational training. He was put to work at an auto shop. “They were afraid to give me any tools because of my IQ—I’m not too reliable. I could hurt the students or myself,” he now says.

Hochhauser was told that if he worked at a restaurant in America, he would never go hungry. They were right, he says. Anything he screwed up, he could eat. He soon graduated from Collinwood and enrolled at Ohio University, where he continued to wrestle with the English language and strive for education. In 1960, Hochhauser received his bachelors and three years later, his masters from Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont. In 1972, he even earned his Ph.D. from the University of Akron.

Since then, Hochhauser has produced many insightful documentaries, interweaving the stories of many survivors who lived through the haunting time. Throughout his fruitful career, he was a German literature scholar, a professor at Kent State University, a recipient of multiple Emmy Awards, the Director of Kent State University’s Ethnic Heritage Program and much more. But above all, he has become a leader who changed the landscape of Jewish studies in Kent and beyond.

Photo courtesy of the Jewish Studies Program.

On coming to the United States:

When I came to this country, it was drilled into me during the war in Europe that I was a subhuman. It took me a while to realize that I am not. When our ship docked in New York, the immigration officer came on board to check our papers before we could leave the ship. He said to me: “You are welcome here.” That’s the first time I was welcome anywhere. He didn’t say anything about being a subhuman. My life changed after that because I didn’t go around with a chip on my shoulder.

Well, I had to learn English of course. The only English I knew were phrases that couldn’t be used. It took me a while to get adjusted to a different culture and different language. I was a frightened child in those days—scared of everything.

On his college years at Ohio University:

I was told to go to the library and look at the catalogues there. I opened up Ohio University’s catalogue and saw a picture of their soccer team. I said “Whoa—that’s the place for me,” because I am a nut for soccer. Any European is. I went to Athens for that reason alone. In Athens, I struggled. One of my professors said that my style was “hopelessly crude.” That kind of bugged me. I looked up in the dictionary the word “hopelessly” and it’s a finality. I thought: “What the hell am I doing here?” But I adjusted after a while, and I didn’t let these things bring me down. I had to succeed.

First of all, it cost a lot of money. My father worked really hard to make it possible. I got a 1.2 my first semester, but I worked harder than a person who got a 4.0. After a while, things got easier. I joined a fraternity. I helped them with their German homework; they helped me with my English homework. We were both happy.

On his efforts in Kent:

When the state put “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” on the high school reading list, the state department of education in Columbus got a lot of calls from teachers wanting to know if this is a true story. It came to light that these teachers had no background on World War II or the Holocaust. The governor called together a committee to develop workshops for teachers on the Holocaust. Somebody spoke up and said that Kent State has a very successful workshop on that already, so why reinvent the wheel?

It was the workshop that I offered in Kent in summer. The governor appointed me the Director of the Ohio Council on Holocaust Education. I offered that workshop at practically all state universities in Ohio in the summer time—one week at each university. I travelled in the summer offering that workshop, and it was very successful.

[The German government] arranged it so that 14 people from the workshop could go to Germany with all expenses paid. We went every summer and it went on for many, many years. It was very successful and it all came out of Kent State.

[The workshop] gave them an accurate picture of what took place in the 40s. It was a pivotal point in world history and a major point in the 20th century. Without that, a lot of things could not be comprehended. It gave an insight to teachers, as well as students who took it for their own interest—and I’m sure there were people who just wanted to go to Europe.

On family, professions and other accomplishments:

I made seven documentaries for PBS, and each one got an Emmy. To achieve a PhD, I’m proud of that. I had a good life, too. I can’t complain. I got married here, and I have three children. Two got a PhD, and the other got a bachelors. Now I’m a grandpa. Who would have thought that I would have lived to see the next two generations? I didn’t even think I’d survive. I mean, the good fortune that I had to see the next generation and then the following one—that satisfies me very much.

On the community in Kent:

The community is very much aware of what we’re doing in Kent. They support it financially. Cleveland, Columbus, Youngstown, Akron—they all are behind it. They know we have [the program] here, and also, they helped build the most beautiful Hillel anywhere in the state. They know it attracts a lot of students. We also have a Lithuanian program, and we have a very good reputation in the Lithuanian community. It gives a good image of Kent State and surrounding towns. I’m proud of the whole program and how it developed into the biggest and most prominent one in Ohio.

I’ve been at Kent State for 48 years, and I enjoyed every minute of it. I’m really indebted to former assistant dean (of the College of Arts and Sciences) Rudy Buttlar. He is the one who referred me to the Ethnic Studies Program for the directorship.

On his latest documentary, “Beyond the Fence:”

[The documentary] deals with an American soldier, an African-American who was a liberator of the Buchenwald concentration camp. We put him together with one of the inmates of that camp who remembers him. It was a very touching get-together. Both survived the war and reestablished their lives. [The documentary] shows the human side—not simply the military or what happened, but how people survived and reacted.

On what inspired him to make documentaries:

I brought a lot of prominent speakers to Kent and it cost a lot of money. The first video was meant to be used in the classroom because we couldn’t afford to bring these people back every semester. That’s why we made film. From there, one of the directors who worked with me polished them up for the artistic productions and we have them to show again and again.