My Zadie


by Lisa Balderman


Being a child of the suburbs I lived a very uneventful existence. Nothing out of the ordinary occurred in my quiet neighborhood with its beautiful poplar tree, its manicured green lawns, its tall elegant houses and its civilized, friendly neighbors. My loving parents and grandparents were never far, and I was surrounded by my four playful siblings, two sisters and two brothers. My maternal grandparents lived not too far from us, and they would tell us a few stories of their lives, which included the story of their origin in Nazi Germany and how they escaped. They were very protective of us, however, and left out the worst of the disasters which they had experienced. Their reminiscences seemed unreal to me, like a happening that one would read in a book.

Five years ago, my life changed in a strange way. My 93-year-old grandfather was moved into our home from Chicago. He was a feisty, sturdy- looking little man who was extremely unhappy. He took over our living room with its glass doors and well arranged furniture. His bed, dresser and a mobile heating unit appeared there instead. He was always cold and shivering, and he would cry out in the middle of the night. These were ear-piercing cries in which he was running away from the Nazis who had beaten out his teeth. He was running away from standing naked in the snow watching one of his fellow concentration camp inmates being hanged in the gallows, while he saw Mengele's henchman dissect living twins, piece by piece, while he had nothing to eat but a piece of  old bread and a soup in which parts of mice and other vermin swam. I tried to comfort Zadie (my grandfather), but to no avail; I stroked his head and spoke to him softly, hoping to quiet him and to show him the caring I felt. He seemed to weep at my show of affection, but no tears would come. Just an eerie heart piercing sound would emanate from his edentulous mouth.                    

On days when he had a few quiet moments, Zadie would tell me about his wife and five children who were killed before his very eyes. He would describe each one and the joys they brought him. He would retell their little antics, their laughter, his joy at the very sight of them and finally the horrible death that was theirs. At the telling of the last he would hang his head and he would be in another world, another place, and another time. He would be in the world of the Warsaw ghetto, the starving men, women, and children. He would be in the tumultuous world of depression. Every so often he would get up, go to the kitchen, open the refrigerator and stuff some food into his mouth. He                   looked just like a hungry animal that is afraid that a nearby predator will take away his bounty. He would take some of the food and place it into his dresser, along with the few clothing that was stored there. Sometimes he would huddle under the bed, and peer out with a piercing look to see if the Nazis were still around. He might remain in that position for a long time, and eventually he would crawl out on all fours with great caution. 

The nights were the worst for this poor old man. His pain would involve all of us since he would knock on the ceiling where our bedrooms were and scream out something about some "Swedish sisters" and some others who disturbed his overworked psyche. We would all awake. I would hear one of my parents walk down the stairs to feed him. Food would usually comfort him for a little while. He would sometimes eat seven eggs during one meal and would often pick up the cooked food with his thick, gnarled hands. It wasn't long before he would knock on the ceiling again with a broom handle to fight his inner turmoil with the Nazis and the atrocities he lived through.

There were times during the day when Zadie told me about his inner youth. He had lost his father at a very early age in Lodz, Poland, where he had received a scant grade school education, and where he had to go to work as a very young child to support his many brothers and sisters who were always hungry. He learned how to tailor and earned a sparse amount of money for his labors. He worked day and night until the Nazis came and destroyed his family, sending them into various concentration and labor camps. The only reason he survived was because he was able to sew Nazi uniforms. He was surrounded by brutality and death. When the war had come to an end, he was barely more than a skeleton, destroyed in mind and body.

Living with my Zadie was a life transformation for me. As a child I always believed that all people were good and kind; that love was a given, that there was never any hunger or evil in the world, and that there was no hatred or malice. With the coming of Zadie, I realized what life is all about.

There is good, there is evil, there is death, and there is survival. In my own small world I learned to appreciate all that I have: food, clothing, and a comfortable home, cherish all my friends and family and all human beings, whatever their ethnicity or lifestyle.  With the coming of Zadie, my eyes were opened and my life was transformed into a new reality.