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WWII veteran honored at Columbia Mission BBQ

World War II veteran honored at Columbia restaurant

If you plan to ask World War II veteran Herman Zeitchik to talk about his war story, you'd better sit down, because it's going to take a while. And it's worth every minute.

Zeitchik's account includes storming Utah Beach in Normandy on D-Day, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, helping liberate Paris, discovering a subcamp of Dachau, a high-profile Nazi concentration camp, and uncovering a cave full of stolen artwork and treasure hidden in the woods of Germany.

And despite his age, 90, Zeitchik recounts the events with lucid precision.

On Friday at Mission BBQ in Columbia, Zeitchik shared some of his stories – as well as photos, letters and other artifacts – with the restaurant's staff and some patrons while he and his family were treated to lunch.

The restaurant also hung three pictures of Zeitchik, putting him among the many faces of military veterans and emergency personnel lining the walls of the patriotic-themed establishment, which was founded by Howard County residents in 2011 and has grown to 12 locations.

Zeitchik, who has been honored in Washington, France and Belgium for his service, called Friday's experience "great," and was particularly honored when a group of soldiers dressed in military fatigues went out of their way to shake his hand and speak with him.

According to Monica Bamba, honoring those who served such as Zeitchik is part of Mission BBQ's effort to give back to "American heroes."

"We love putting pictures of our customers, of our heroes in our community, up on the wall so we can honor, thank and give awareness to people like Herman and listen to his stories," she said.

The day was also a treat for Zeitchik's family, including his daughters, Carol Bodner, of Columbia, and Linda Frank, of North Potomac.

Bodner said it's "heartwarming and overwhelming" to see the support and thanks extended to her father.

"When we were little he never talked about the war," Bodner said. "It's been wonderful for him because he never spoke about it. And now it is very important for him."

Frank said her dad only recently began opening up about his military experience, and that the family decided to sit down and hear his story.

What they discovered was a remarkable network of events.

Zeitchik, who lives in Silver Spring with his wife, Janet, is a native of Linden. N.J., and left high school to enlist in the U.S. Army at 18. After storming Utah Beach as part of the 4th Infantry Division as a teenager, he was stationed in different parts of France and Germany at Army headquarters.

He said part of his job was to provide maps to different infantry units.

"As we advanced, we had to give out maps. Someone had to know where we were going," he said.

He recounted the story of discovering a subcamp of the Dachau Concentration Camp. He said he was on patrol with some fellow soldiers when they came upon a barracks.

"People were locked inside this barbed-wire fence and were afraid to come out," he said.

He remembers speaking to a few of the prisoners, whom he said were surprised to discover he was a Jewish American, and even gave one of them his military-issued Bible that he carried in his pocket.

"I wanted to give them something to remember me by," he said.

He also told the story of when he came upon a cave of artwork, wine, cognac, silver and other treasures while on patrol in the German woods.

He recalls the cave being a seemingly endless labyrinth of valuables.

"The more you looked, the more you found. I said, 'What the hell is this?' " he said.

It turned out to be treasures hidden and stolen by the Nazis.

"I am the original monument man," he said, referencing a novel and feature film called "The Monuments Men" that chronicles a WWII unit tasked with recovering and preserving artifacts stolen by the Nazis.

Zeitchik said he radioed in the find and handed it off to a supervisor.

"I said, 'You have to bring an officer down here,' because it was beyond what I could handle," he said.

Although Zeitchik doesn't have any mementos to commemorate the find, he does have troves of photographs he took during the war.

The catalog includes photos from the liberation of Paris and other notable events. Zeitchik keeps them in binders that he brought to Mission BBQ to share. Also inside the binders are photos of the many medal ceremonies he attended.

For his liberation of Paris and Dachau, Zeitchik was made a Chevalier or knight in the French Legion of Honor, one of the highest awards the country bestows.

And while he is proud of the medals and happy to share his stories, Zeitchik said the greatest part of his story is everything that happened after the war.

"I'm just lucky I lived long enough to see all these wonderful things," he said.

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