You know how it is, you stumble and bumble along on your life's journey, mostly smoothly but sometimes hitting the odd bump or three which can cause alarm or despondency, or both, but you keep on pedalling and then suddenly, without warning, you come across someone else's life and for a few minutes your own stops dead! Thus it was for me when I read this last night:
"Max Ostro was a young Jew living in Poland when the Nazis came. He and his family were rounded up. Together with one of his brothers and his father, he was herded into a cattle truck in a train bound for Treblinka. No one came back from Treblinka. It was an extermination camp. There, many of Poland's three million Jews were gassed, burned and turned to ash.
In the train, barely able to breathe, his father held his two sons. He said to them, 'Mein kinder, if you stay on the train you will die. It belongs to malch hamoves, the angel of death. I want you to davven maariv - pray the evening prayer. Then I want the two of you, when the opportunity presents itself, to jump. The Nazis will shoot. But one of you will survive. This I promise you: one of you will survive.'
The sons prayed. Both jumped from the train. The Nazis saw the movement and started firing. Max's brother was killed instantly. Max, under cover of darkness, survived.
The family had hidden a sum of money which Max was able to recover, and with it he paid a farmer to hide him in his hay barn. Max survived this way for some time. Then came November 1944. The Nazi effort to round up and exterminate all remaining Jews intensified. Max later told his son that he had a dream at that time. In it he saw the Rebbe, the holy teacher his father had admired. The Rebbe told him, 'It is no longer safe for you in the barn.'
So Max came to an arrangement with the farmer. He had himself buried in a grave in the ground with only a narrow space open to the sky. Through it Max was able to breath. Once a week the farmer would come and bring something for Max to eat and drink. He survived like that, buried alive, for two months until the war came to an end.
Max eventually came to Britain, built a business, married and had two children. He went to the synagogue regularly, prayed every day, lived his life as an Orthodox Jew and gave much of his money to charity. He never spoke bitterly about the Holocaust, and though sometimes he wept for the family he had lost - he was the only survivor - he and the other survivors in Britain became a kind of extended family to one another.
I did not know Max well - I saw him from time to time at gatherings of Holocaust survivors. I knew his face, but not his story. While I was writing this book, he died and I went to comfort his son Maurice, whom I knew. That was when I heard his story. A book has been written about it."
Jonathan Sacks: The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning; ch. 10, pp182,183
No doubt there are a thousand and one stories like that, not just from the Holocaust but from all the other man-made catastrophes we have inflicted upon each other. As you come across them, they give you pause and once again you marvel at the human spirit and the strength that lies in the will to live.