Book Review – Zaidy’ s War

Zaidy’ s War by Martin Bodek

In 2003, Martin Bodek recorded his Zaidy (grandfather) for four Thursday evenings until there was nothing left to be said.  He then wrote Zaidy’s War. The book is  gripping as the book details the horrors and successes of his beloved Zaidy and his family. Zaidy Bentsion born 12/17/1918, was one of four surviving children of Chantze and  Aharon Malik who lived in Marmarosh County of Northern Romania, a town populated by over 65,000 Hasidic residents.  He became a brilliant learned Jew and expert chef.

In 1939 Bentzion was conscripted into the abusive Romanian Armed Forces which became the Hungarian Forced Labor Service System as Jews were not allowed to be soldiers. Germany had overtaken that area and he then dug holes for the German Army in hellish conditions. He escaped with a friend, survived by begging food from locals but was captured by Russian soldiers. As a prisoner, he chopped wood for many grueling hours daily but was well fed.

In 1942 he was transported to Kirov close to the Artic Circle, which was an extensive transportation and industrial town with a population of around 40,000.  He found an old friend, Yerucham who was a chef in the kitchen.  Zaidy continued his long days logging, but survived with the help of Yerucham and his own foraging skills. The Germans eventually surrounded the area and cut off food supplies. The only way to survive was cannibalism but Zaidy refused.

Back home in Marmarosh the government became evil. Jews were exiled to prison camps or concentration camps. The remaining Jews were not allowed to work. On 3/14/44, Germany invaded and the Jewish communities were decimated. From the cattle car Aharon, Zayde’s brother, yells out the train window to his son, Eliezer, “Tamim tehiyeh im HaShem Elokecha!…” Be wholehearted with the L-rd your G-d…”. Bodek pg. 43 All are transported to Auschwitz where they endured unimaginable horrors. After barely surviving Auschwitz, Eliezer is transferred to Buchenwald . The ‘welcoming sign’ translates, “To each what he deserves.”  It is here that the human skin of corpses is “ flayed off …turned into lampshades, book and album covers, handbags, gloves and wall decorations.”  Bodek pg. 54  Evil  knows no bounds. Buchenwald is liberated on 4/11/1945 and American forces provide a massive relief effort to the victims including Eliezer.

Zaidy survives his own horrors at Camp Chrinor whose population dwindled to under 400. He is supported with food and care because he meets his wood cutting and water bearing quotas as well as help from Yerucham. He then volunteers to train as a Russian sniper to defeat Germany.  Hitler commits suicide and before Zaidy reaches the destination of the Russian attack with the other Russian soldiers, Germany surrenders and the convoy returns to Chrinor.

He travels towards home by foot with a group of survivors of Chrinor until only 10 men are left.  Tragically 9 of these last men die from foraged mushrooms which Benzion refused to eat.  At his decimated hometown he is found by a former gentile neighbor who recognizes him and tells him his brother Eliezer and a cousin survive. Eliezer and he embrace in front of the ruins of their home. Nothing is left except their mother’s buried jewels.  As the brothers begin their recovery, they heroically provide the basics for the returning survivors, help restore the synagogue and mikvah and reestablish a yeshivah for the mostly orphaned children. Singles events are arranged; Zaidy and Eliezer find their kallahs.

Zaidy works in a sawmill. However, in December 1947 the Russians take over all 47,000 private businesses and Zaidy and Eliezer with their growing families immigrate to Israel.  Zaidy worked in several factories and learned with his renown cousin Rav Naftali Yaacov. His boys learn in Satmar Yeshiva. Eliezer and his family move to B’nei Brak. However, after the ’67 war, Zaidy and the family move to Boro Park to avoid further trauma. He works as a chef at the Mir Yeshivah and other yeshivas for over 40 years until he is 85. Bobbi while raising all of her children including Chantze, worked as a seamstress, salesperson and at a bakery for over 30 years until she was 78. Their children marry and have their own children.

The author of the book, Martin Bodek is born to Boruch and Chantze on April 19, 1975.  Years later Zaidy allows Naftali Lichstein to stay rent free in his first home before he moved in, while the family recovers from injuries as a result of their devastating house fire. Their family connections go back to prewar Romania.

Bodek describes his beautiful relationship with Zaidy as well as his morning routine of calisthenics, davening, learning and eating a healthy breakfast. At night he was in bed by 6 and learned until midnight. After Bobbie’s passing at age 79, Zaidy stayed with various family, learning, preparing his own food and playing with his almost 100 beloved grandchildren and more great grandchildren until his passing at age 95.

Bodek wrote this book to preserve the memories of his family as they endured the Holocaust and thrived thereafter. He finishes the book with recorded dreams of Zaidy, a history of events, a transcription of the tapes, genealogies, tributes and other related topics.

Debby Gilden lives in Sharon, Massachussetts