I often find myself listening to my children as they lament their challenges of the day and remind them of the differences between problems arising out of affluence and melodrama of the real world.
Prior to living in New Canaan, we spent several years in London where we received a baptism of fire in international living and in life. Our close family friends, Kathy and Ross, were Australian ex-pats whose children lined up perfectly with our own and whose ability to live in the moment made each day an adventure and every dinner a life lesson. One evening I was complaining over dinner about a particularly difficult decision at work and Ross smiled and asked “ Well, mate, is it a shoe decision ? “ I was stumped and assumed this yet another of his Aussie colloquialisms.
Ross shared that his boss and mentor, Frank, was an Auschwitz survivor. Frank was 48 when he emigrated penniless from the former Czechoslovakia. His philosophy of living catapulted him to become CEO of one of the world’s multinational corporations. Frank would often ask Ross “ is it a shoe decision ? “ when chiding Ross on taking life too seriously.
Frank shared that when he was a teenager, they were rounding up Jews and taking them to the camps. The stress was unbelievable as each night Frank and an increasingly shrinking ghetto of survivors would wait for the pounding at the door. ‘They always came at night and gave you no time to gather your things. Off people went ‘( Most never returned ).
‘The night they came for me, for some reason, I did not expect it. I was tired and was counting on a good nights sleep. It was bitterly cold that winter and I had fortunately dressed in heavier winter pajamas. They Nazis burst in, and I could only grab one thing. I chose for some reason to grab two pairs of shoes. I put on one pair and sliped the others inside my bedclothes. The train was horrific – hours standing with no place to sit or use the toilet, people dying all the way over the several hour train ride to Birkenau -( Auschwitz )
‘It became clear to me that my extra pair of shoes would mean life for someone. We were forced to stand for hours in freezing rain and snow. People’s feet would get frost bite and gangrenous. Once the gangrene set in, they were whisked off to the gas chambers. I had two friends with me from home – both without shoes. I knew that the person I gave the shoes to would live and the one without the shoes would most likely die. The night of my decision, I agonized until morning, a more tortured soul you could not find. The next day, I gave the shoes to one friend, while the other watched. He bore me no ill will. The friend without shoes died in the gas chambers weeks later with infected feet. My other friend ? He is an Auschwitz survivor today. ‘
‘ So you see, Ross’ he shared, ‘ here’s the way I look at it: Is it a shoe decision ? Is it life or death ? Because if it is, you must take the time to be sure you search every corner of your soul for the truth. Pray for guidance. If it is not life or death. Think. Decide. Act and never look back. If it is wrong you can change your mind. Be a good man. Do the right thing. But, agonizing over little problems that do not decide life or death is a waste of your life. Leave worry for the other man.’
I think back many times on that dinner in London. I think of the safety, security and affluence we enjoy and remind my children that none of our problems are “ shoe decisions”. Words to live by, particularly these days when the world outside our cocoon seems so beset with conflict and hatred.