Walking Up the Down Escalator
I hear these stories while standing at the bar. I’m at a simcha, sharing a l’chaim with the grandparents of the bride/groom/Bar/Bat Mitzvah, who are chatting and smiling, as proud grandparents should. And then, I’ll notice they have an unusual glint in their eye, the look of pure glee mixed with pure defiance. And they’ll whisper to me: “you know I shouldn’t be alive...they should have got me, but what happened was...”. They then tell me their stories, about how a remarkable convergence of persistence and luck allowed them to survive, rebuild and celebrate simchas.
Nowadays, the generation of survivors is once again battling the angel of death, and I often hear these stories while preparing a eulogy. Each time a survivor passes away, I am reminded that without them the Jewish world would be smaller, weaker and duller. Their families, their communal involvements, and the fact that they are a living link to Eastern European Judaism have contributed immeasurably in reconstructing the Jewish world after the Holocaust.
But to me, the survivors teach more than history; they teach character. Many survived due to incredible, impossible adventures. In each of these adventures, the survivor’s character is critical. They did the impossible because they had chutzpah, tenacity and optimism. Their stories have taught me the importance of determination, a lesson that’s significant for anyone who’s ever faced failure and disappointment.
It’s easy to give up. Our society, with it’s wonderful overabundance of comforts, has an unfortunate side effect: it has made people soft. We’ve become so used to success that we are unable to cope with adversity. Personal, relationship and business difficulties often end with people giving up, because we are easily discouraged.
For survivors, quitting wasn’t an option. I remember a survivor telling me “you know, I just wanted to live”. It may seem like a pointless comment; everyone wants to live! But when a survivor makes this remark, it speaks volumes about personal determination. This man refused to give up when facing overwhelming odds. Many others simply surrendered; some even walked into electrified fence as a way of ending the suffering. However, the survivors persevered, clinging to life even when it seemed absurd. To me, endless determination is the survivors’ greatest legacy.
I once heard a speaker remark “life is like walking up the down escalator”. Despite our wealth and success, this is true of all of us at one time or another. We all have disappointments that pull us down. The survivors climbed up an impossible escalator, and somehow made it to the top. Because of their accomplishments, they remain an inspiration to all of us struggling our way up the escalator of life.