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For Bar Mitzvah Boy and Survivor, Love of Chess Bridges 76-Year Age Gap

Thirteen-year-old Zachary Targoff was feeling cornered. His options were running out. Across the table, 90-year-old Herman Bomze sat impassively, waiting.

“I made a bad move there,” Zachary said.

A minute passed in tense silence. Then Zachary accepted his demise. “I’m going to go ahead and resign,” he said.

Thus ended the latest of the improbable contests between two opponents whose clashing biographies virtually encapsulate the trajectory of American Jewry over the past century.

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Zachary, a soft-spoken eighth-grader at Manhattan’s prestigious Trinity School, is a poised product of 21st-century American Jewish affluence, security and stability. His busy schedule includes orchestra and athletics, and two hours a day of tennis practice most days of the week. He has lived in Manhattan his entire life.

Bomze, a smiling, white-haired former engineer with a German accent, can only shake his head in wonder at the contrast.

His was a youth that began in poverty and advanced from there into displacement, confrontations with anti-Semitism, a flight from Europe just ahead of the Holocaust and a struggle to begin life anew in America as a refugee whose father perished in the Shoah.

Even the duo’s religious background is a study in contrasts. Zachary is an irregular synagogue attendee who became a bar mitzvah at a Reform synagogue in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. Bomze grew up in a traditionally observant Jewish home and now frequents the Orthodox Lincoln Square Synagogue.

Yet when it comes to chess, the two are well matched.

“When he’s playing chess with Zachary, I think he feels his strength, his brains, his intelligence,” said Bomze’s daughter, Bracha-Nechama Bomze. “I think he forgets that he’s elderly and frail.”

Zachary, for his part, says he feels a sense of calm when playing Bomze, “because there’s no judgment; he’s not comparing me to anyone else. You can’t really get nervous around him.”

The two found each other with the help of DOROT, an agency that services the needs of seniors and specializes in creating productive intergenerational partnerships between young people and the elderly. For the most part, young people “don’t have much experience interacting with older people that aren’t their own relatives,” noted Judith Turner, DOROT’s director of volunteer services. “In our society in which older people should be most revered, they’re often forgotten.”

DOROT paired the two more than a year ago, not long before Zachary’s 2013 bar mitzvah. The 12-year-old chess whiz was looking to play a senior as a bar mitzvah service project, and Bomze was fruitlessly searching for a chess player of his own level.

When Zachary walked into the elderly man’s Midtown Manhattan apartment, Bomze finally met his match. “It’s very rare in his whole life to have anyone beat him,” Bracha-Nechama Bomze said of her father. “Zachary can beat him. And even though [my father] is embarrassed, he loves it.”

Bomze played his first chess game a lifetime ago in Vienna, on a hand-carved wooden chessboard that belonged to his father. “My father taught me to play chess when I was 6 years old. By the time I was 8, he couldn’t beat me anymore, so there wasn’t much more I could learn from him,” Bomze said. “But playing Zach is a completely different story. From Zach I learn a lot.”

In their first game, Zachary employed the “Sicilian opening,” one of the few aggressive openings that can be used by the black side.

Bomze was immediately intrigued by the strategy, which involves a full assault on the pieces closest to the white player’s queen. “I remember being fascinated,” he said. “There are so many possibilities with that opening.”

Like Bomze, Zachary learned chess from his father and excelled at the game from a young age. He became a nationally ranked player in third grade, earning a spot among the top 50 players his age in the United States.

Zachary’s father and first chess teacher, Joshua Targoff, is the chief operating officer and general counsel of a successful New York investment firm, Third Point LLC.

Bomze’s father, Baruch Bomze, on the other hand, was an egg importer who struggled to make ends meet in prewar Austria. Born in a small Polish town in 1924, Herman Bomze grew up under the shadow of poverty and anti-Semitism. When he was 5, his parents moved their family to Vienna to seek a better life.

But the improvement was short-lived. His family’s home was attacked on Kristallnacht, and Bomze was nearly arrested during a raid by Nazis of a meeting of Hashomer Hatzair, a Zionist resistance group.

“Vienna was a beautiful city until Hitler invaded and all the non-Jewish Germans became Nazis,” Bomze said. “It was a terrible time in my life to live through.”

Bomze and his mother and his sister were able to secure visas to immigrate to the United States, where Bomze eventually became a structural engineer. But his father was unable to find a way out of Europe.

“I’d be after [my father] to get his name on the list, and he would say, ‘I have time,’” Bomze said. “But as it turned out, he did not have time. He died in the Buchenwald concentration camp.”

After a long pause, he added, “It was so, so long ago, that the pain has left.”

When Bomze escaped Austria in 1939, he brought only a few possessions, including his father’s chess set — a set that Bomze and his daughter, in a memorable act of generosity, presented to Zachary during his bar mitzvah service.

But the poignancy of the moment — and more generally, the pair’s unlikely friendship — can be misleading. Zachary and Bomze don’t share a clichéd, gregarious, grandfather-grandchild friendship. Their chess is not a vehicle for Bomze to offer Zachary his wisdom or to share stories of his childhood in Nazi-era Vienna. The game is the point of the matter.

“People keep quiet during the game,” Bomze said. “It’s like listening to music.”

When they do speak, before and after the game, the subject matter is practical. “We talk about chess — it’s not really stories,” Zachary said.

Asked how he views Bomze’s life from the perspective of his own, Zachary replied: “I mean, there is no comparison — he was running away from death. I don’t think there’s anything similar about it except we both know how to play chess.”

Bomze, however, is reminded a bit of his own story when he is around Zachary. “I was his age when I left Vienna,” he said. “I felt a certain kinship with him because of that.”

The pair’s partnership has proved successful enough, after almost a year, for DOROT to launch a larger chess program for seniors and youth this past spring — an idea that first came from the Targoff family, which is funding it.

“It clicked in my head when Bracha told me it was the highlight of Herman’s week,” Joshua Targoff said.

In his bar mitzvah invitation, Zachary asked guests for donations to help fund the new intergenerational chess program. Thanks to the success of this spring’s program, DOROT plans to make the activity a regular part of its schedule in the fall.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, about 20 seniors and children crowded around chessboards in a room at DOROT’s building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The room, which buzzed with happy chatter, presented the unusual sight of nonagenarians and 10-year-olds swapping chess advice.

Sometimes the games required particular patience from the fast-thinking children, who are given sensitivity training by DOROT. At one point, a senior suddenly switched sides and began moving the pieces of his opponent, young Alexander Gellman. Alexander simply shrugged and also switched sides.

But the seniors need patience, too, for the youthful mistakes of their partners. When 11-year-old Evan Cohen moved his queen into danger, his 91-year-old competitor, Bertha Boutis, came to the rescue. “Take it back quick; take it back quick, honey,” she said.

“Oh, yeah,” Evan said sheepishly. “Thank you.”

Contact Hody Nemes at [email protected] or on Twitter, @hodifly

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