Lesley Ann Richardson’s new book “By High Ordeal” is one such riveting manuscript that should be required reading for this generation. It is a biography of Holocaust survivor and Israeli artist Sam Herciger with each chapter of one man’s story set within the context of brilliantly researched historic narrative.
Richardson’s title “By High Ordeal” is taken from Leonard Cohen’s song, “Who By Fire,” as the lyrics go,
“Who by fire and who by water
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial …”
….inspired by the haunting “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer on Yom Kippur. The prayer describes God’s review of the Book of Life and the fate of every soul for the coming year – if they will live or how they will die.
The gripping tale of artist Sam Herciger describes the heroic spirit of Holocaust survivors and the supernatural strength often imparted in the most dire circumstances, even when their bed was made in Hell.
Time after time, as a young teenager and then into his married life Herciger was persecuted for simply being a member of the Jewish race. He was incarcerated so many times that I lost count, but the most horrendous prisons he endured were Nazi concentration camps and Nazi death marches.
Herciger’s biography serves to illustrate the power of positive words spoken over individuals. From where did Herciger receive the will and the strength to keep living when he was reduced through starvation and hard labour to only 35 kilos? From time to time he had remembered a chance encounter with a stranger in his youth, somebody who looked like a Prophet of sorts whom he met on the banks of the Vistula River in Poland. The Prophet spoke words of life and had predicted a future for Herciger, telling him that he would become exactly what he wanted to be. This mysterious man would reappear in many of Herciger’s later art works.
“By High Ordeal” is a triumph of the human spirit and a testament to the endurance of God’s covenant people. Not only did Herciger survive the infernal ordeal of the suffocating train to Auschwitz and upon arrival having his wife brutally torn from his side, never to see her sweet face again, after his liberation his second wife also died an excruciating death from multiple sclerosis. Sam Herciger and his third wife Edith emigrated to Israel in 1969 and established an artist’s colony in the Negev, drawing many thousands of visitors and where he worked until his death in 1981.
We need these Holocaust survivor stories to illustrate the power to overcome the depths of evil and to remind us not to cling very tightly to this world, for throughout the narrative there is a Higher Power reminding us of the world to come.
“On Rosh Hashanah it is written and Yom Kippur it is sealedHow many shall pass on and how many shall come to be;who shall live and who shall die;who shall see ripe old age and who shall not;who shall perish by fire and who by water;who by sword and who by beast;who by hunger and who by thirst.…”
Songwriter Leonard Cohen heard this prayer as a child in the synagogue and as a result he wrote the haunting song “Who by Fire.”
Thank you Christine. This is an arresting call to preparation. Your phrasing — to beware of “the insidious loss of freedoms” — is spot on. It is astonishing how quickly we become accustomed to both the heating water, as we splash about heedlessly with the other frogs about to boil in the pot, and become inured to our self indulgence. I can think of regrets, but God is giving us as clear a warning as there could be that we can void the worst regret imaginable. Now is the time to stop risk avoidance and speak the gospel message more than ever.
Christine, thank you again for your brilliant review of the book I have written to honor Sam’s life and memory, to detail his Holocaust experiences, and chart his way back to life and purpose and blessing – his extraordinary story. I love the way you have extended the words of the Unetaneh Tokef to include the blessed hope of the Christians – Maranatha Lord Jesus! I also wanted to let you know that, upon my publisher’s advice, I have changed the title of the book (she felt it was a bit “highbrow” or rather obscure). So it is now called “Creating Beauty From the Abyss” and will be published early next year.