The story is about Arthur Meyerowitz, a Jewish American airman from the Bronx shot down behind Nazi lines on Dec 31st, 1943. For 6 months with the aid of French resistance, he was able to avoid capture and escape over the Pyrenees into Spain. This incredible story of survival, bravery, and self-sacrifice draws us in to ponder life and the choices we make. Stories are our greatest teachers — what did this story teach me?
- Pride, stupidity, and cowardice. Arthur was the flight engineer for “Harmful Lil’ Armful.” It was his job to see to it that the bomber was flightworthy before the mission. The B24 had been shot up previously, and one of its four engines was not working correctly. Arthur deemed the plane unworthy, but the pilot overruled Arthur. “This mission is a milk run, kid, nothing to worry about,” said Captain Chase, stupidly dismissing the concerns. When Arthur confronted his pilot a second time, Chase arrogantly put the lesser ranked Arthur in his place. Sure enough, during the firefight over France, the plane faltered and fell from the sky. Protocols to abandon ship demanded that the pilot and co-pilot be the last to parachute out so that other crew members could get the best possible jump. Still, Chase, when he saw that the plane was doomed, abandoned his ship, leaving the rest of the crew to fend for themselves.
Life Lesson #1: Don’t let pride prevent you from listening to good advice
Life Lesson #2 There is a higher calling to life than just strict self-preservation. To be willing to help others even at the risk of your own life is a more righteous path.
- Bravery under pressure. For over four months. Arthur had to pretend that he was a deaf-mute named George Lambare. He was harassed by the Nazi’s and eventually, Arthurs cover was blown. In that terrible moment, Meyerowitz had the presence of mind to discard his false I.D. to protect his friends. He was hauled into Gestapo H.Q. and tortured mercilessly to give up the names of his comrades. He remained silent until a daring rescue by his French comrades pulled him from the clutches of death. Arthurs clearheadedness and great courage under intense pressure and suffering speak to the man’s incredible courage.
Life Lesson #3: Never let terror and fear be the primary influencers on the action or inactions of my life.
- Pushing the limits to survive. Arthur’s only chance for escape was to go over the Pyrenees and into Spain. Meyerowitz made the arduous trek over deep snow-covered mountain passes with a bad back and no gloves or proper footwear. As they descended the mountain range towards Spain, they were discovered and hunted by a Nazi alpine patrol. Frostbitten, exhausted, and utterly terrified, they had to dig down deeper than they ever could have imagined and run/roll/fall down the mountain as Nazi sniper fire whizzed by them.
Life Lesson #4: I am capable of much more than I think. (Especially if my life is on the line!)
- Everyone needs a little bit of luck — They crossed the unguarded bridge into Spain with the Nazis only on their heels. They were sitting ducks. A few shots across the bridge, and Arthur and his team would have met their end. Inexplicably, the Nazis gave up the chase and disappeared back into the mountains. Perhaps these Germans were not like the Gestapo. Maybe they decided to let their quarry live because of the tremendous effort they made to escape? We will never know.
Life Lesson #5: If I am successful, I should be humble enough to realize that much of whatever greatness I achieve has nothing to do with me.
- Is there ever a time when brutality is the answer for brutality? I think it was Winston Churchill who said that you don’t sit at a negotiating table with a tiger; you kill it. Hitler’s minions in tiger-like fashion brutalized the French population to such a degree that most remained quiet or even collaborated with the invaders. But a rebellious few saw the tiger for what it was and reacted in ways that made Churchill proud. The only thing more ruthless than the Gestapo was the French resistance. They terrorized the German horde and their French collaborators with a sickening efficiency of their own. Was that the right call?
Life Lesson #6 —It’s ok to take down a bully. Churchill was right, and so were the French resistors. Having said that, it’s tough to look at the terror and carnage that came from both sides and conclude that one side of the bloodletting was good and the other not.
One final bit of musing: Where do the Christian ideals of love, forgiveness and peace fit into the context of war? They don’t. War seeks to kill the enemy; Christianity teaches to love your enemy. For the French, the tiger was in the living room. It had to be killed. So I don’t know how fundamental Christian principles survive if one finds himself engulfed in a war. The Christian pacifists among us are at least trying to be consistent with the peaceful and non-violent position that seems to come from the lips of Jesus, but at some point, the proper course must be to confront evil. Surely, at times, it must be dealt with using a sledgehammer, or in the case of Jesus, a whip.