Eulogy for Bert Bodenheimer
Eulogy for Bert Bodenheimer
Written by: Brenda Bodenheimer Zlatin
Siegbert Arno Bodenheimer was born on May 22, 1928 in a small town in Germany near the border with Switzerland, where his father, Alfred, was the prosperous owner of a large shoestore, and his mother, Martha, an industrious homemaker. Bert and his sister Inge had a happy childhood, which was interrupted by increasing anti-Semitism and the rise of the Nazi party .After Kristallnacht, Bert and Inge could no longer go to school in Germany, and his family, with many customers and connections in Switzerland, arranged for them to ride their bicycles to school across the border. The family was able to get a visa to America, yet like many others, had to wait for a long period until their “quota number” came up in order to actually emigrate.
It was during this time that ten year old Bert was assigned the task of smuggling across the border various important documents and papers, such as the deed to the Bodenheimer house, which he passed to a sympathetic teacher. As this was the time of rampant monetary inflation in Germany, the Nazi border guards were concerned primarily with searching travelers going from Switzerland to Germany, thinking that they might be bringing in foreign currency or other valuables. So every day when Bert came home from school, he was stopped by the guards, who even made him take the wheel off his bicycle for examination. Yet these same guards never thought to search the youngsters in the morning, when Bert actually had the goods.
As kids, we never knew whether our grandparents assigned this task to my father because he was naturally fearless, or whether the experience shaped his personality, or some combination of the two. Yet it is easy to see in this story the seeds of the man that Bert would become, particularly his determination and his conviction that most, if not all, obstacles could be overcome with optimism, courage, “sechel,” and hard work.
Eventually, the Bodenheimers made their way from Germany to Switzerland to New York. Dad arrived in America on his eleventh birthday, May 22, 1939, and quickly adjusted to life in the United States. He excelled in math and physics, and so, elementary school led to Brooklyn Technical High School, which led to City College and a graduate degree in industrial engineering from Columbia. Then the Korean War intervened. Bert was drafted, knowing that his skills would be in high and dangerous demand by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Once again, Dad was lucky. A clumsy lab technician dropped his vial of blood during enlistment, and too busy or lazy to draw more, listed his blood type as “unknown.” As soldiers with unknown blood types cannot be shipped overseas for combat, Bert put his industrial engineering skills to use at Fort Lee Virginia. He helped the army to figure out whether soldiers could be induced to eat square hamburgers in order to more efficiently use griddle space — they couldn’t. Bert also figured out why so many servings of breakfast eggs on the base were going in the garbage (this had to do with the spices that the Mexican cooks liked to use.) Not all was frivolous however. Bert volunteered to spend several winter months atop Mount Washington in New Hampshire, testing out a new type of combat boot that would be more resistant to the bitter Korean winter. All the testers, including Dad, had to wear their boots day and night during the entire test period. Dad’s task was to go around with the clipboard periodically testing the temperature of their feet. The boots turned out to be a success. They saved many lives among the freezing and frostbitten American soldiers overseas, and in fact, are still in use today. Bert came down from Mt. Washington to civilian life and promptly burned the underwear that he had been wearing for several months.
It was America in the fifties, prosperous and optimistic. Dad got his first job at Slater Electric, but did not, as expected, marry Mr. Slater’s daughter. Fate, in the person of one Bubbele Baumgart, intervened. Bubbele Baumgart was a German Jewish matriarch who conveniently knew Bert’s parents as well as a nice couple from Washington Heights, Ruth and Hugo Schleicher. The Schleichers just happened to have an accomplished daughter named Ellen who was studying law at Yale. One thing led to another, and Bert and Ellen married in the summer of 1954. They left Slater Electronic and the city for the leafy suburbs of Connecticut, a job with American Machine and Foundry, and an apartment on Hoyt Street in Stamford. Brenda, Carol and Andrew followed, and Bert decided to buy a piece of land in North Stamford and build a house. Dad planned that house with his usual meticulous engineering eye, and for over forty years, knew its every nut, bolt, noise, and rattle. Dad never, ever, hired someone to fix anything in the house that he could fix himself. Even when he could no longer go up and down the stairs to the boiler room, he was able to instruct Bertha and his children exactly where to find each fuse and furnace valve.
Bert left American Machine and Foundry for a job with CBS Labs in Stamford, where he enjoyed new professional challenges designing audio equipment for the Gemini Space Program with a noted acoustic expert Ben Bauer. Later, he joined SeaLand Service in New Jersey working in refrigerated transportation, which became his professional area of expertise. Dad invented and patented numerous innovations in the containerized shipping industry, including a new type of car carrier and a container for dry powdered goods that won a prestigious industry award. Dad traveled around the world for business, while Ellen worked first with the Stamford Health Department and later with the law firm of Mall and Friedman. Shortly after he turned 40, Bert went into business for himself, developing a successful engineering design and consulting firm of which he was enormously proud.
Dad worked hard, did well, and loved his family and kids. He became active in the community, serving on the Boards of Agudath Shalom and the Bi-Cultural Day School. With such a full life, Dad expected to grow old with the wife of his youth, Ellen. This was not to be, however. Ellen was discovered to have a rare blood disorder, and after several years of illness, passed away in January 1981, at the age of 49. Bert and Ellen had been married for twenty-six happy years.
Two years later, Bertha Allen came to Stamford from Lewiston Maine, to work at the local United Jewish Federation. Flora Smithline introduced the bachelor and the eligible bachlorette. Bert and Bertha married in October 1983, and this year would have celebrated their twenty-fifth anniversary. It is so rare today to see anyone with one very happy marriage, and yet my dad, at heart a true romantic, had the incredible fortune to have not one but two. His family grew to include Bertha’s children: Michael, Cindy, Donny, and David; her brothers, Stan and Seymour; her nephews Scott and Mark; and her parents May and Abe Tetenman — who sadly were with us for too short a time. Today, we number seven children and their partners, eleven grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
So — here are some little-known facts about Bert Bodenheimer. When he was at Columbia Engineering School doing his master’s degree, he successfully fought for permission to take an elective course in opera. (No engineer had ever requested this before.) He had an amazing memory for Gilbert and Sullivan lyrics. In the 1960’s, he had one of the first personal computers, and was constantly learning new computer skills, even this year. Dad, it is well known, could answer almost any question about how something works, without looking up the answers. But few know that at my brother’s wedding, when the band blew a fuse, Dad fixed it with a foil chewing gum wrapper and saved the event. (This is a true story – ask the band.) And these are only a few of the Bert Bodenheimer stories we could tell.
Dad was proud to be a Jew. Like many of his generation, especially those who experienced the horrors of Nazi Germany, being Jewish was simply part of who he was. Bert and Ellen went to Israel for the first time in 1968 with their dear friend Walter Schuchatowitz, and Dad went back several times, developing a special connection to his relatives and in-laws there. As a result of Dad’s friendship with Walter, he made the decision to send his children to the Bi-Cultural Day School. Dad was proud to be an active participant at Josh, Jess and Jake’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah’s; thrilled to hold each of his grandchildren at a bris or naming; and kvelled at Channukah when the family got together to light candles. Dad’s Passover seders were legendary. After he dressed up as Moses and led the grandchildren out of Egypt and across the Red Sea, he would always begin the Seder by speaking about his own personal exodus from Germany in 1939, sharing with his grandchildren pictures and documents from his own childhood to help them understand his words.
All Jewish people love their families, but Dad was absolutely over the top. He called his sister Inge every morning, and shared many special moments with his devoted daughter in law, Anne Allen. Nobody could forget the way that Dad “benched” his children and grandchildren on Shabbat and holidays, and quite a few non-family members asked for his blessing too. But especially, my Dad loved Bertha, the amazing woman he met and fell in love with over 25 years ago. She was his great love, partner, friend and strength for as long as we can remember. During these last few difficult months, Bertha rarely left his side. A few weeks ago, when Dad came home from one of his all-too frequent hospitalizations, he sat down to Friday night dinner. After Bertha lit the Shabbos candles, Dad said “God, thank you for giving me Bertha.” There is little, perhaps nothing, that we could add to these words – they say it all.
From 1928 to 2008, Bert Bodenheimer lived the fullest life imaginable, with gusto, appetite for adventure, grace, and charm. We will never forget Bert’s wisdom, humor, optimism, and great pride in his family.