Leap of Faith


Happenstance.  According to my handy online Thesaurus, this word means “a circumstance that is especially due to chance.” 

And, by the way, a catchy rhyme for happenstance is “fighting chance.”  Which, presumably, is happenstance as well…

What about the phrase “leap of faith”?  My handy dictionary defines this as “an act of believing in or attempting something whose existence or outcome cannot be proved.”  Thus, taking a leap of fate—an uncertain step toward freedom, for example—will succeed or not succeed depending on happenstance?

Energy and persistence conquer all things,” said Benjamin Franklin.  Or, consider a Celtic proverb: “Those who wish to sing will always find a song.”  In other words?  Whether a step into the unknown will succeed or not may, in fact, depend on our fervor to step, or our need to step. 

Or: maybe the success of that step is not the only point.  We do it because we must, because we believe, because to not step would be soul-crushing.

Today I’m thinking about a man I met years ago, in his modest home in Forest Hills, New York.  The man’s name was Philip Menchel, and he was from Czechoslovakia.  He was also the father of my college roommate Marcia.  Before this meeting she’d already told me all about him: his years at Auschwitz-Berkenau, his escape from the death march of prisoners toward Germany when the Russian front was approaching, and his subsequent marriage to another camp survivor, Marcia’s mother, Elsa Menchel.  Together this attractive young couple had one child.  They raised her to be warm and honest; and to stay cognizant of history and identity and pain and triumph.   

As for me, well, I had always wanted to speak with a camp survivor; here was my chance.  I was thrilled to meet him, eager to understand what kinds of insights are borne of humanity’s most shameful acts toward humanity.  And my roommate’s father honored me by telling me his story, beginning to end, with all the details that I insisted on knowing. 

To this day, some of those details stay with me as if I’ve absorbed them into my own DNA.  The icy cold reviewing of new prisoners by Dr. Josef Mengel.  The terror of seeing family members walk away forever.  The stench of the ovens.  The savage determination to survive.  I recall Mr. Menchel telling me that his youth and blond hair and blue eyes helped him avoid the worst of the fates distributed all around him.  And I recall his statement of how his own hunger began to destroy the humanity in him—something that bothered him still.  Yet he finds hope, he said.  “I still believe in the good I saw in some people.  That good is what I would call ‘God.’”

Back to leaps of faith and happenstance. 

This man, my college roommate’s father, was among the prisoners who, in 1944, marched 3 days and nights with no water.  30,000-40,000 thousand people died.  So when Mr. Menchel found himself on yet another train, this one heading for Germany, he took a giant leap off that train toward freedom.  He risked death by jumping and running under gunfire, and then hiding in a barn.  So there you have it: the upside of the most dramatic leap of any kind that I can imagine.  With his story in mind, can anyone really despair of the small discouragements arising in a flagging economy; in an uncertain political climate; in the furious mundane battles of aging individuals and families?  Can’t we, too, find the moment to leap? 

Philip Menchel survived to tell his story.  To have his family.  And all these years later—last weekend, in fact—I had the joy of meeting his three granddaughters for the first time when my roommate and her family were visiting California. 

These girls—the gift and legacy of one ordinary and amazing man’s courage–are gorgeous, vibrant, bright, and feisty.  Upon seeing them I thought: these three young women, they exist because of that one leap off a train.  And because of happenstance too, I suppose, since there have always been plenty of brave and worthy people whose courage did not result in what it should have resulted in.

Last weekend the coast was fogged in a bit.  In a seaside villa overlooking a golf course and the shimmering Pacific, I thought about how enduring life can be, and how ephemeral.  These young daughters add to the vibrancy of the world while reminding us that as cruel as this world can be, sometimes one step is all we can do.

And sometimes it is enough.

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