Valery Oisteanu

The Life and Death of John Badum

For me, the story began one morning when I observed a good-looking Middle Eastern man hanging out for hours in front of my window, just opposite Saint Mark’s Church. I wanted to photograph him, and by the time I fetched my camera he was gone. The next day came the grim news that one of my neighbors was killed upstate by his estranged lover. It didn’t occur to me that the Arabic man might be involved. Almost a month later, on June 22, 1999, The New York Times carried a photograph of John Badum, praising him as a catalyst in the fashion world, and noting he had been brutally stabbed to death in Batavia, N.Y., over the recent Memorial Day weekend .

Like many who come to New York, Badum wanted to take the city by storm. Openly gay and abundantly creative, he moved into an apartment building on lower Second Avenue in the East Village and quickly become a successful entrepreneur. In the early 1980s he produced a washable silk sportswear line called Go Silk, which became incredibly popular for a time. “We had every major retailer coming through our door,” said Jerry Hirsch, the founder of  L’Zinger and producer for Go Silk.

Born and raised in Hagerstown, Md., Badum seemed a natural in New York, and he had a grasp of all the city’s myriad cultural events. He knew the best restaurants, the best shows, and could always get the most difficult reservations. Although his wares were originally distributed through stores like Niemen Marcus, by 1995 Go Silk’s luster was fading away, and John decided he would take some time off for travel.

First he went to England, then India, the Greek islands, and then to North Africa. He was thinking of starting a home-furnishing catalogue based on the things he had found abroad. On the road, Badum had several romantic relationships that involved exotic younger men. John was tall and portly, and he thought someone from another culture would find it easier to accept his physical self.

Flash-forward: In the early hours of Sunday, May 30, some 40 miles east of Buffalo in Batavia, John Badum, 46, was brutally stabbed, 31 times, by an ex-lover, a Moroccan immigrant, 23-year-old Hamid Ouhda. John was killed defending his sister, Theresa, 40, a teacher in Batavia, who subsequently admitted that to please her brother she had married Hamid in Morocco to get him an American visa.

Later that night, an hour or so after the killing and fleeing on foot, the Moroccan immigrant was killed himself by a minivan traveling on Route 33 about a mile east of Batavia. The detectives on the case believed that Hamid threw himself into the vehicle’s path, and his death was ruled a suicide.

Meanwhile, John’s friends in the East Village and on Seventh Avenue, where he had built a $30 million enterprise, were stunned at the news. A few weeks after the murder, 200 people gathered for a memorial service, and from their eulogies a partial picture of the events before the death evolved. John had traveled to southern Morocco in 1996. There he met a handsome 6’2″ stranger, pleasant but immature. He spoke very little English and conversed with John in a pigeon French. His family lived in a farming village 125 miles south of Marrakesh on the border with the Sahara Dessert. Some of John’s friends who knew about it advised him against involvement with Hamid because of the age and cultural differences, but John would not listen. The couple was planning to buy a house near Woodstock, but meanwhile settled into Theresa’s apartment in Batavia.

She insisted the marriage had been her idea: “I really felt that this was a person for my brother.” But just a month before the stabbing, she began to see emotional stress in the young Moroccan. Just weeks before the murder, he had stormed out of the apartment shouting, “You don’t own me. I’m free.” He went to live on a nearby farm where he earned money milking cows.  John was upset at the deterioration of their relationship and confessed being ashamed about getting his sister involved.

On the morning of May 29, Hamid traveled to New York and waited for nine hours on the sidewalk outside John’s building. But John was not in New York. He had gone to Batavia to be with his sister. Hamid had told someone he was planning to kill John and then himself. John’s last phone call was with the young Moroccan, who said he wanted to go back home. John tried to calm him, telling him to go to a hostel and that he would see him the next day in New York. He even booked an airline reservation on the Internet for his companion to return to Morocco.

Instead, Hamid boarded a bus to Batavia, and an hour and a half later, a 911 call reported that someone had thrown a brick through a sliding glass door and entered Theresa’s kitchen. There, he turned on the light and picked up two knives. He moved toward the bedroom, shattering a plywood door into four pieces. At the memorial services, Theresa Badum, who had escaped the carnage with minor stab wounds, told the gathering that her brother had saved her life, having absorbed the brunt of Hamid’s fury.

The personal memories remain — his dark-painted apartment, his gold lame curtains visible from Second Avenue, his fabulous Go Silk pants, which I still wear. But when I bring up John’s name, most people do not remember him.

Lorenzo Perrone — The Righteous Gentile

Lorenzo Perrone was a bricklayer from the town of Alba (Piedmont, Italy). He was a craftsman hired by the Germans to work for the Nazis. One day in the winter of 1944 an assistant bricklayer in striped prisoner’s garb from Auschwitz was brought to help Lorenzo; he was Primo Levi, a member of an anti-fascist resistance in Italy and a Jew, deported in ‘44 to a slave labor camp. Before the war, Primo was a chemical engineer, and as such a top manager in a paint factory. After his arrest as a partisan, he was selected for hard labor instead of the gas chambers, and found himself next to Lorenzo, cursed in Italian, with a Piedmontese accent, for spilling a bucket of mortar. This opening incident brought them together because they discovered a common language ,both from the same region in Italy with a specific accent. Lorenzo became Primo Levi’s guardian angel for the next year, secretly helping him, bringing daily a large metal canteen filled with soup.

In his third book of memoirs from Auschwitz, “Moments of Reprieve,” published in 1981, Primo Levi writes “In the soup we found often plum pits, salami peels and once, even the wing of a sparrow, with all its feathers, another time a scrap of Italian newspaper … the bottom line is that: that quart of soup helped him to balance the daily calorie count. One day, the soup contained some pebble, and Lorenzo apologized, explaining that a bomb exploded next to him, burying the tin with soup, and bursting Perrone’s eardrum.” Had Lorenzo been caught helping a Jewish anti-fascist prisoner, he would have ended up a prisoner himself in Auschwitz in the so-called re-education quarters. But Perrone helped Levi nevertheless, sending mail to Italy and arranging for Levi to have paper and pencil. Soon the correspondence triggered a package from Levi’s family, with chocolate, cookies and powdered milk. “That unexpected, improbable, impossible package was like a meteorite, a heavenly object charged with symbols, immensely precious, and with enormous momentum.” Unfortunately, most of the food was stolen on Christmas by hungry inmates while Levi was washing himself: “Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my jacket with the food sewn into it rising in the air like someone had fished it from the small window above the nail where it was hanging.” Dashing outside, naked in the frozen weather, he found nobody. Some other famished men were celebrating Christmas at his expense, even blessing him.

After the Germans’ retreat from Auschwitz, the last moments of the Third Reich began. Levi, struck by scarlet fever, was left behind. The remaining inmates were sent off on an infamous death march and most did not survive. Perrone simply walked home by following the rails and soon, talking to Levi’s family, he described the conditions he had left behind as unspeakable and that no one should expect Primo to be alive. But Levi returned five months later via Russia and went straight to find his guardian angel. In Auschwitz, Lorenzo gave him a vest to wear under his prison garb, a godsend gesture in the wintertime. This time, Levi brought Lorenzo a hand-knit sweater, but sadly enough, the stress of war and the camps had a depressing effect on Lorenzo, who was mortally tired, weary without remedy and heavily alcoholic. In 1952, Levi arranged for him to be committed to a hospital, but Perrone slipped away, and was found lying outdoors in an alcoholic stupor, and died a few hours later. To honor his memory, Levi and his wife named their son Renzo, and gave their daughter the middle name of Lorenza.

35 years later, after many successful books, this gifted writer of our time, Primo Levi, suffering from heavy depression related to his experience of the Holocaust and the slight of the literary establishment that considered him only a memorialist, committed suicide by jumping of the staircase at his building.

12 years later and nearly 50 years after his death, Israel bestowed the Righteous Gentile honor to Lorenzo Perrone, the Italian bricklayer who risked his life for Primo Levi in Auschwitz. The Israeli Consulate presented the award to his ailing 83-year-old brother, Secondo, a retired plumber. A plaque was dedicated in Jerusalem for the man who, as Primo Levi puts it, “ Lorenzo was not a survivor, but died of survivor’s disease.”

Unfortunately, the media ignored the event, and his name will remain almost anonymous on a rocky hillside in Jerusalem at the Holocaust Memorial called Yad Vashem, where an avenue of trees delineate a somber garden where Gentiles who saved Jews in the Nazi-time were honored by names, trees and plaque.

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