I was reminded yesterday that, on the eve of the destruction wrought on the Jewish communities of Europe in the first part of the last century, my great-grandfather and his brother sat down to talk. They could see how desperate their situation was likely to become, and they had no idea how they could secure the future of their families against the gathering storm. And so they made a bargain, and a gamble with fate. They would toss a coin, they agreed. Whoever called correctly would take their family to England. The other would stay in mainland Europe.
Between them, they hoped, some part of the family would manage to survive.
As a result of this decision, my great-grandfather’s family came across a sea of stars to England. His brother, his brother’s family, and all their children passed through Poland and Paris and eventually to the death-camps at Auschwitz, where as far as we can tell all of them perished.
On the throw of a coin the chain of life that came down to me and now on to my own children was secured. Who knows how many generations, how many lives, how much that has since and yet will be brought to the world, rested on that fateful moment?
Remembering all of this is a huge call back into gratitude and wonder in my darkest, most self-obsessed, most resigned, resentful, and most narcissistic moments. It cuts through confusion and despair, awakening me again to what life is calling for, to my unique responsibility to act and take care of life – my own and others and everyone’s.
And it strikes me that the moment at the heart of this story is one of countless billions of chance moments and near misses, stretching back and back over time, that make it possible to be here.
That any one of those moments could have called an end to the great chain of which I am the inheritor.
And that this is true for all of us, whether or not we have stories in our families of desperate decisions made in terrifying times.
And that if perhaps we made efforts to remember this, somehow, in our daily lives, we’d go to sleep less often to the unfathomable privilege and enormous responsibility of simply, gloriously being alive, in this place and at this time.