Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m not one to seek out a physical challenge.
For me, the plank is something pirates used in days gone by and dips are something my wife and I put out when friends come over.
Now all that has changed…
I have a pair of walking boots, an app on my phone which counts my steps and last week I attended my first pilates class. Why? Because the unthinkable has happened and I have volunteered to take part in Camp Simcha’s second ever overseas challenge, The Coastal Freedom Trail.
From July 16-21, I will be joining other Camp Simcha fundraisers to walk the 72km route across the Pyrenees, travelled by men, women and children attempting the flee the Nazis during World War Two.
Over the last 12 years as Chief Executive of Camp Simcha, I have supported, thanked and applauded the hundreds of people who have undertaken physical challenges to raise money for our work supporting families coping with serious childhood illness.
I have never undertaken one myself but this challenge struck a chord with me. It was the escape route my wife’s father successfully took, aged just 14 in 1942. Sadly, my father-in-law passed away three years ago, but his bravery and endurance in the most extreme and gravest of circumstances has inspired me to do this challenge in his memory.
It seems fitting that it will raise money to support Camp Simcha families who also endure so much and inspire us all with their bravery in the toughest of circumstances.
My father-in-law Joseph Sagal was born to Polish parents, in Cologne in 1928. In October 1938 when the Germans were expelling all the Polish Jews, Joseph’s father, under the guise of doing business in Paris, put Joseph and his older brother Max on his passport and got the boys out. Their mother was left behind, unable to join them for another four years.
After four years in Paris, as life there became more perilous, the boys were sent to a safer place in Moissac with the French Jewish scouts. It was here that Joseph had his bar mitzvah without his parents – Max taught him how to lein.
After Joseph and Max’s mother had made it to France, the family moved to Luchon in the Pyrenees, where they lived for about a year. Joseph told us he had given a bottle of wine to the Commandant who lived on the first floor of their apartment building and it was this same Commandant, who, one night, warned Joseph’s parents that they had to leave France immediately. The next morning would be too late.
With a group of ten people and a guide they left that night to walk over the Pyrenees to Spain – a similar route that I will be taking in July.
They all walked across the Pyrenees dodging the Germans with their dogs but as they came down the mountain in Spain, the Spanish police were waiting for them, with orders to transfer them back to France that day with dire potential consequences. Detained at the police station, the group decided to escape by jumping out of a top floor window and agreed to meet up at a hut they could see in the mountains. Joseph and his father jumped last – forced to leave an elderly woman who couldn’t do it. My father-in-law told us he was always haunted by the image of her standing by the window as they went.
When they reached the hut Joseph’s mother was missing. Joseph’s father was about to give himself up when they saw a stranger on the mountain. Joseph told them what had happened and amazingly, the man, who had fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, risked his life to get Joseph’s mother. He found her and the family made their escape towards Barcelona.
Once they got to Barcelona, the American Joint looked after them. Joseph’s mother had a sister in England so he and Max left their parents in Barcelona to travel to Lisbon and then on the UK. Just after they boarded their plane bound for England, a steward came and told them they would have to take the next plane because their seats were being taken by a VIP. That same plane, which they had to vacate, was shot down by the Germans – with no survivors.
Joseph and Max made it safely to the UK and their parents followed some time later. Half a century later, in 2007 Joseph and his wife Beryl retraced his journey over the Pyrenees, with my wife Roz and her two sisters. Recalling that terrible time was very emotional for him – he told me he thanked G-d that he was able to make that same journey with his own family, in such peaceful circumstances all those years later.
Without his bravery my life would not be the same today. I thank him for my family and I honour him by retracing his footsteps for the benefit of other families trying to navigate their way out of their own terrible times.
As I said, I am not one for physical challenges. I can assure you all this will be a one-time event so I look forward to sharing my journey – and the ups and downs of my preparation for it – with you over the weeks.
You can sponsor my Freedom Trail here
You can also read this article about my challenge in the Jewish Chronicle