Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Elegy for My Grandfather, Benzion Malik, Z'TL

My holy, beloved, aidel, sweet grandfather, Benzion ben Reb Aharon and Chantze Malik, has passed away after 95 full years.

He began his life in an astounding way: After bearing two children, Laizer and Yente, his mother had miscarried six straight times, and was pregnant again. His parents went to the Eitz Chaim, the rebbe of Siget, for advice. He said they should name the child Benzion and he'll be granted arichas yomim.

So it was.

His mother did not lay herself down to sleep for a full year following his birth, remaining in her daytime clothing so she would be too uncomfortable to recline, keeping vigil over him. He survived, and his mother returned to normal sleep, and soon had another daughter, Sarah.

His youth was a bit misspent. Though he had a high intellectual aptitude, he mostly spent it hanging around town with his friends (like a typical teenager).

One night, before he was headed out again to carouse with his fellows, he opened his mother's door to tell her he'd be stepping out. She was crying. He asked her what was the matter. She said she was crying over him. She had promised God that she would raise yoshvei oholim, and she was failing miserably as a mother. Stunned by her lament, he changed his ways on the spot, instead went to the beis medrash, opened a sefer, and began a lifetime of hasmada.

When the winds of war began swirling around them, my grandfather's family began putting their affairs in order. His mother buried her jewels in the backyard. His father hid his Shas.

When the Nazi war machine came rampaging through his town of Marmarosh, in Romania, he had an extended, close-knit living-together family of 18 members. In a single, harsh day, he was separated from 16 of them, and he would never see them again.

Many of them were loaded onto the infamous trains. As the one containing my great-grandfather pulled away, he screamed out from between the slats, “Tamim tehiyeh im HaShem Elokecha! Hishalech imo bit’meemus vatitzapeh lo! V’lo tachkor achar ha’atidus! Elo kol ma sheyavo aleicha kabel bit’meemus, v’az tehiyeh imo ulechalko! (Be wholehearted with the Lord, your God: Conduct yourself with Him with simplicity and depend on Him, and do not inquire of the future; rather, accept whatever happens to you with [unadulterated] simplicity and then, you will be with Him and to His portion.) Remember this! Memorize this! You and your children! This is my tzava’ah!”

(This command has been honored for generations. When I interviewed members of my family to obtain the details written here, several of them recited this (Rashi on Shoftim 18:13) with speed, clarity, and reverence.)

My grandfather escaped with his brother, Laizer, but was separated from him as well, and he was, as he used to say, alein vee a shtein (alone like a stone).

He was captured by the Germans while on the run and was enslaved by them, forced to dig foxholes on the frontlines as the ally bullets whizzed past him, felling his other enslaved compatriots.

He escaped in the night, into the forests, and subsisted on streamwater, mushrooms, and whatever he found inside of animal feces.

He was captured by the Russian army and was enslaved by them, forced to chop wood and bear water for the troops.

The Russian army was famously undersupplied. Food dwindled to nothing, and for a time, the chef traveling with the battalion could only prepare human flesh taken from those who fell from malnutrition, extreme cold, and other maladies.

My grandfather refused to partake, under pain of death, and was beaten by the Russians for taking his stand.

The chef offered my grandfather freshly broiled samples of this fare, but my grandfather rejected them, declaring, “B’shim oifen nisht!” (“Under no circumstances whatsoever!”)

At first the chef punished him by withholding whatever else he had that was available, but he soon relented, took mercy upon my grandfather, and snuck him second helpings of grains and breads that were normally reserved for the army.

Soon the Russian army was also depleted of soldiers, and they began converting their servants into fighters, providing basic training. My grandfather showed skill as a marksman, and was about to earn his military stripes, when American soldiers visited the training camp and announced that the Germans had surrendered.

My grandfather put down his weapon, gathered together everyone he could find from his hometown, and began a several-hundred mile journey on foot with several dozen of his townsmen towards home.

The traveling group's diet consisted of the same diet my grandfather subsisted on in the forests, plus garbage. All but ten of them died along the way from various causes.

On the night before the final trek home, the group ate some mushrooms that seemed suspicious to my grandfather. He declined, and in the morning, he was the only person who woke up.

He was, once again, alein vee a shtein.

He arrived in his hometown, and made his way towards his house. There was nothing left of it except two walls forming a corner. In the corner, to his dismay, he found that his father's Shas had been used as toilet paper. He wept.

An old friend tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Benzion? Benzion? Your brother is here."

He walked into the street to greet his brother, whom he had not seen in five years. He held him, fell to the ground with him in middle of the street, and wept with him for an hour. They retrieved whatever they could find in their home that wasn't destroyed - including their mother's jewels , the shawl she wore when keeping watch the first year of my grandfather's life, and their father's tallis - and began to reestablish their lives.

He and his brother, a Vizhnitzer musmach, started a small Yeshiva together for young boys – small because there were few children alive in their world.

A year later, the community staged a singles ball, for the express purpose of pairing up the lonely and the heartbroken, so they wouldn't be alone and to rebuild their society from the ashes. He met a pretty girl named Breindy Stein, an Auschwitz survivor, and married her on December 17th - his birthday - in a small ceremony.

Two years later, ships arrived at the port of their community, declaring that they were building the medinah, and all were welcome to join. My grandparents boarded, settled in Acco, and were present and accounted for when Ben Gurion made his famous speech. My grandfather had become his own name: a Son of Zion.

He emigrated with his family to the States after a few decades in Israel.

He returned in the late 70s to perform chalitza for his brother's widow.

He served as a chef for over 40 years in various Yeshivas in Boro Park and camps in the Catskills.

He was the personal matzah baker for Rav Moshe Feinstein, Z'TL.

He finished Shas 14 times.

He was an ohev shalom v'rodef sholom.

He made the best chocolate milk ever.

He was a wonderful and engaging storyteller.

He would draw silly pictures for his grandchildren and color with them with his tongue sticking out the side of his mouth in concentration (a trait I inherited).

He would sit patiently with my sister Yenti, and let her play hairdresser on him, not caring how silly he looked with his peyos in ponytails and beard in barrettes, as long as she was delighted.

After a childhood filled with affection, she realized she had never told him she loved him. My father prompted her to do so. She was shy about it, but after finally working up the courage, she said "Zaidy, I love you." He looked at her and matter of factly responded, “In az dee zugst mir nisht, veiss ich nisht?” (“And if you don’t tell me, I don’t know?”)

He gave every grandchild sweets, sometimes to the protest of their parents, but he would say, "How else will they love me?" Right, as if it was his sweets, and not his sweetness, that made us love him.

He doted on his wife for 58 years before she was taken before her time by mesothelioma. To every person who called and came, he would say, "Mahn Brandele iz gevain man vabele fahr acht-in-fiftzig yoor. Yetz bin ich alein vee a shtein." ("My Brandele was my wife for 58 years, now I'm alone like a stone")

For over 60 years, until his hospitalization towards the end of his life, he used threads from his father's tallis as wicks for his Menorah.

At the levaya, as he was eulogized by his eldest great-grandson, my sister Yenti and I held up and held on to our mother as she wept for the father she had loved and cared for all his life and in his waning days. She then bewailed:

"Alein vee a shtein! Alein vee a shtein!"

His bier was placed on the bench he sat on in his shul; the bench on which I sat with him for so many Shabbos and Yom Tov davenings; the bench from which I admired his soaring and stately chazanos when he davened for the amud.

Now his family is alein vee a shtein without him.

Mah nomer?, he also used to say, mah nedaber?

Father of three.

Grandfather of nineteen.

Great-grandfather of more than eighty.

Great-great-grandfather of five.

Patriarch of a multitude.

If I should become half the man he was, I will be a man in full.

-Mordechi Bodek


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