Hashkama #60 – RETURN FROM THE DEAD
The Psalmist could have written this verse for Meir Abelson personally. Meir lay in the cock-pit of his crashed plane. It was during World War II when Meir was a British Air Force pilot. His plane had come down and his crew lay dead around him. Meir could not move and thinking he was going to die, be began to recite the Shema. But God had other plans. “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Psalm 28:15)
Here is Meir’s story written by his own hand.
RETURN FROM THE DEAD
By Meir Abelson
“Though I pass through the Valley of the shadow of Death I shall fear no evil; for Thou art with me.” (Psalm 23:4)
By the grace of God, I have been saved from death fifteen times during my life; this is the story of number four.
One morning in February 1943, my father sat down to breakfast, opened the morning newspaper, and read the headline. He shut the paper, pushed away his plate, got up from his seat and ran out of the house. Taking a bus to the centre of London, he walked into the headquarters of the Air Ministry, and, thrusting the open newspaper under the nose of the duty officer, demanded: “Tell me…have you any news of my son?” The officer asked for my name, then opened a drawer, and, taking out a long list, ran his finger down, stopped suddenly, and said: “Ah yes… …he’s dead.. “
This was February, 1943, in the middle of World War Two. I had just graduated from navigation school in Canada under the Commonwealth Air Training Scheme, and had been posted to R.A.F. Ferry Command in Montreal My job was to fly American-built aircraft to Britain under the Lend-Lease Scheme, across the north Atlantic to an air base in Scotland, and then to return to Montreal to make further deliveries.
My first assignment was to ferry across the last of the two-engined Hudson bombers. It was not a pleasant journey. It was in February – the depths of winter; flying at 20,000 feet we were only just above the clouds that that covered the whole of the North Atlantic; the pilot was afraid we were beginning to get iced up – not a few aircraft were lost on that route. Radio contact was forbidden, because it would betray our position to enemy aircraft; so we had to depend on astro-navigation the entire way.
We descended through a thick blanket of cloud; then the barren mountains of northern Scotland came into view; it was the first time I had seen my homeland for more than a year. I was given a week’s leave, and returned to my home in London. I felt that I deserved it.
On the seventh day, I was supposed to fly back to Canada as a passenger. On that day there occurred what I subsequently realised was a first warning from above: “Under no circumstances fly back to Canada on aircraft AL591.” I said to my father: “See here – they have given me a ticket to travel by train to Ayr” (the air base in Scotland from which aircraft to Canada took off). “There’s an air base a few miles from here…perhaps I can get a lift and save a few hours.” I rang the base…“No problem,” they said…“Be here at 9 a.m. tomorrow.” So I enjoyed a few more hours at home. However, when I arrived at the base next morning, they said: “Sorry, no flights – fog all over Scotland.” What was I to do? I was supposed to be at Ayr; I rang the Air Ministry…they were not pleased, and ordered me to take a train immediately.
I arrived after lunch. At 3.0 in the afternoon I sat down in the officers’ lounge and started to read a book. Slowly, I began to feel unwell; by 5.0 I had the most terrible headache – the worst I have ever had in my life. At 6.0 the flight engineer from the aircraft we had delivered came over and asked if I would come with him to town to see a film. I agreed; but I could not look at the screen because of my headache; and when we returned to the base, I told him: “If I feel like this in the morning, I shall have to go to the medical officer and tell him I’m not fit to travel.”
In the morning, when I awoke, I didn’t feel any better. I sat on the edge of the bed, and thought: “what shall I do? To go or not to go?” In the end I decided that there was a war on, and I had an important job to do; so I packed by bag and walked to the aircraft.
Twenty-one boarded the four-engined Liberator – one of the largest bombers and transport aircraft and bombers in service at that time. Not all of us were Ferry Command crews; three of the passengers were high-ranking Canadian officers, carrying the papers of the Yalta Conference that had just taken place between the three leaders Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, to the Canadian Government. There were ominous reports of the weather from the other side of the Atlantic – but we took off. All the way across I felt ill; for the first – and only time in my life I was sick in mid-air.
It was a long time before I awoke. I looked at my watch, and couldn’t believe my eyes. We had been flying for 14 hours; and I knew that the aircraft usually carried enough fuel for only 11 hours’ flight. I asked my neighbour: “What’s happening?” “Things are serious,” he replied. “There are snowstorms all over the east coast of Canada and the United States, and we can’t find a place to land. We’re flying north over north-east Newfoundland.” At that moment, the co-pilot came through and asked everyone to sit on the floor. To me he said: “You’d better sit with your back to the baggage.” He saved my life….”
We sat and waited. Suddenly, everything went black; I didn’t lose consciousness – but I couldn’t see. When a human body travels at high speed and stops suddenly, if he is not killed or rendered unconscious, the blood drains from his eyes and he cannot see; but he can feel, and he can hear. I could feel that my knees were pressed up against my chest with such force that although I was wearing thick flying clothes, I could not breathe. I also experienced a sharp pain in my back and right leg, which were broken; and I heard frightful noises of people screaming, and of metal breaking up.
At that moment, I was convinced that my life was coming to an end. I knew that I would never see my family and friends again; but instead of feeling frightened or sad, a sense of pleasurable anticipation flooded through me ……
At this point, I must stress that in those days my connection with faith, and my knowledge of Judaism, were both minimal. I was therefore completely unprepared for the experience that followed, which I shall now describe.
Imagine that you are sitting up far into the night, trying to understand a complicated mathematical problem; not only do you not know the answer – you don’t even understand the question. Then – in a flash – it all becomes clear to you.
While fully conscious, it seemed to me that all the secrets of life were revealed to me – one after the other. After each revelation, I cried aloud: “Oh! I see!” There were seven in all; after the seventh, I felt an appalling feeling of regret, and I said to myself: “If only I had known all this before, I would have lived an entirely different life; but now – it’s TOO LATE!”
Suddenly – I could see again. I realized that my headache had gone – and so had the seven secrets of life….except for the shadowy end of number seven…..it was something to do with the importance of being a Jew. As I have said, this was something of which– in those days – I knew absolutely nothing.
I looked around – and found myself faced with a terrible reality. I was trapped in the wreckage of the aircraft – a veritable coffin of scrap metal that surrounded me on all sides. About six feet from me I could see a hole large enough to crawl through; but I couldn’t have reached it, because I was wedged between two dead bodies, one on the left and another on the right; a third lay on top of me, screaming. It was dark; but through the gaping hole I could see a snowstorm raging.
I struggled for what seemed an interminably long time to free myself, but without success. At one stage, I managed to raise my body slightly; during the process, my left foot came out of the fur-lined flying boot; but it sank down again – not into the flying boot but into snow. There was nothing I could do; and within a short time, the foot was frozen.
I became weaker and weaker, until at last I had no strength left. The screaming man on top of me was silent now; he was dead, and his body pressed me down.
In those days, I knew nothing of prayer; all I knew was the first paragraph of the “Shema Yisroel.” I repeated the prayer aloud, slowly. As I reached the last word, I threw off the dead bodies with one heave – and crawled out of the coffin into the snow.
There was only one other left alive of the twenty-one who had boarded the aircraft; the snowstorm howled around us….and then I saw that not one meter from me stood the tail of the aircraft – the only part still intact. We crawled inside – but there was no shelter from the snow. Again – not one meter from me I saw a parachute; I opened it, and hung it over the hole to give us shelter. We lay there for two days, without food or water. We were almost too weak to talk and we had no idea where we were. The other survivor opened his clothes and held my frozen foot against his chest; but it didn’t help.
The next night, the snowstorm stopped, and the sky cleared; we looked outside and saw a light revolving in the distance. It was from the small airbase we had been trying to reach when we crashed. We decided that we would try to reach it on foot next morning; little did we know that it was twelve kilometres away, through impenetrable forests and swamps, where no human foot had trodden since the six days of Creation….
The next morning, the sun shone in a cloudless sky. We got to our feet, and prepared to start walking in the direction of the light we had seen the previous night. My companion’s injuries were light; but I was in great pain; we would not have got very far.
Suddenly, we heard the noise of aircraft in the sky. The Canadian air force had sent aircraft up to search for us. We saw them; but although we waved frantically, they couldn’t see us, because everything was covered with snow. Once again – about one meter from me I saw the edge of a box sticking out of the snow. I cleared away the snow, and revealed a box of distress flares; I lit them all; they shot up into the sky – and the pilots saw us. A dozen planes swooped down low to encourage us, while one flew back to base and returned with two sacks of oranges which they dropped by parachute. We retrieved them and ate them all – with the peel. Later, a light aircraft fitted with skis instead of wheels landed near us and flew us out. At the base hospital, I was found to have a broken back, a broken leg, and frostbite of both feet. It was six months before I recovered.
When I arrived home in England, I discovered an eerie sequel. My watch had stopped at the moment of impact; the time was 7.30 a.m. At around midnight, my mother in England retired to bed. About half-an-hour later she awoke and sat bolt upright; she had dreamed that she saw in front of her eyes the words A TRAGIC, TERRIBLE PLANE CRASH. Next morning she told this to a friend at work – and then forgot she had done so. When her friend heard the news of my survival, she said to my mother: “But don't you remember – you told me of your dream the same night; allowing for the time difference, that must have happened at exactly the same moment as the crash!”
From that day on, I asked myself: “Why me?” I had no particular merit that could explain the extraordinary manner in which I received warnings not to travel on flight AL 591….or how I survived with such injuries as prompted Dr. Little to comment, when he discharged me months later from Montreal General Hospital: “You’re lucky you don’t have to spend all your life in a wheelchair.” Then there was the providential manner in which we were enabled to survive two days in a temperature well below zero; and the fact that without the half-hidden box of distress flares we could not have attracted the attention of the aircraft looking for us. I felt like the patriarch Jacob who exclaimed (Genesis 32:11): “I am not worthy of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which you have shown to your servant…”
Many years later – in Jerusalem – I found the answer. Pursuant to my work at the Chief Government Valuer’s office, I was walking through Alcalay Street, when my eye caught a freshly painted notice affixed to the front door of number. 9: ‘THE CENTRE FOR VOLUNTARY SERVICE.’ Something propelled me inside, where I found the retired head teacher of the school Yehuda Halevy seated at a desk. She looked at me wonderingly and said: “I only fixed that notice outside five minutes ago….you’re the first person to come in.” I asked: “What can I do for you?”
That was the beginning of years of voluntary service among problem youth that have continued to this day. Among the thousands I have seen have been drug addicts, petty criminals, dropouts, pupils who could not realise their potential without finance, family problems, violence – and heart-breaking tragedies. All over the country there are success stories – many who have served faithfully in the Army, learned a trade, graduated from universities, married and raised children – and then helped others as they themselves were helped.
I have said that at the moment of impact the seven secrets of life were revealed to me – but the moment I could see again, they left me. However, there are certain observations I should like to share with whoever reads this.
1. How often do we hear or use the words “Be healthy.” But do we internalise them? Every morning, when I repeat the morning prayers, almost everyone has special significance for me. We bless Hashem “…who gives sight to the blind.” Invariably I remember when I was blind for a few minutes…….and suddenly, I could see again. When I continue: “Who frees the imprisoned,” I remember how I was pinned down in a metal coffin – from which I miraculously emerged. When we repeat “Who straightens the bent,” I remember how, for several months, I could not stand upright because of the pain in my back. “Who clothes the naked” – I remember how the other survivor put my frozen foot against his bared chest in an effort to warm it. “Who gives strength to the weary,” I recall how I lost all strength – and by the repetition of the first paragraph of the “Shema” I heaved myself out of the metal coffin. I remember how I used to stagger painfully along the length of the hospital corridor – about fifty metres – attempting to get support from the wall. And – most incredible of all – all this happened almost exactly in the order they appear in the morning prayers!
2. For me, the words “too late” are the most awful words in the dictionary. The conviction that you have come to the end of your life, and you ask yourself: “Why did I do that?” or “Why didn’t I do that – oh! It’s too late!” – I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.
3. The author James Hilton wrote: “There are times in every man’s life when he glimpses the Eternal.” One night we were flying in a moonless and starless night over Canada, when suddenly the heavens opened and rays of light – all the colours of the rainbow, revolved before our eyes. The phenomenon is known as “The Northern Lights”….but the sight reminded me of the verse in Psalm 8:4.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me.”
4. There are some who ask: “How can you prove there is a God?” I like to quote Professor James Conklin, Harvard University physicist, who replied: “The possibility that the entire universe appeared by accident is comparable to the possibility that the entire dictionary appeared as the result of an explosion in a printing factory.”
5. It is written in the Mishna – Berachot: Just as we bless God for the good, so we should thank Him for the bad.” How, indeed?.....When my elder son died from leukaemia as a result of something that happened during his Army service, I was only capable of repeating the words that that King David uttered when he heard of the death of his son Jonathan: “Would I have died in your stead!”
Some weeks later, my second son who lives in the town of Bet Shemesh, telephoned me and suggested that in view of what had happened, we should move closer to him and his family, The following evening we were sitting in a neighbour’s flat; and I told him of my son’s suggestion; he said: “If you want to move to Bet Shemesh, I can help you – I sell trees to all the builders there.” He sat down and wrote a list of all the builders, their telephone numbers, and the name of the person to contact. I did so – and the result was that we found a suitable flat without any difficulty; it was the nicest flat we had ever lived in – with the nicest view ever….the nicest neighbours’ we ever had…close to the nicest Synagogue I had ever prayed in…..But I have not mentioned where we lived previously; it was a suburb of Jerusalem named Gilo that overlooked the town of Bethlehem. Two weeks after we left, the Arab “intifada” broke out; we were in the direct line of fire from Bethlehem – and one day a sniper’s bullet flew into the window of the flat above what had been ours, narrowly missing the head of a boy who was sitting and preparing his homework.
6. I have pondered deeply on what I was meant to understand by the cryptic words "the importance of being a Jew." The conclusion I have arrived at may not correspond to those of others; but it is based on ninety years of living in this world…ninety years of watching the spread of materialism, greed, drugs, corruption, hate, intolerance, permissiveness, perversion, murder, rape, genocide, etc., etc.
For over 3,000 years philosophers, thinkers, humanists, and theorists have tried to solve the problem of how to get people to behave as civilised human beings. The recipe of the eminent 18th century philosopher Emanuel Kant – a central figure in modern philosophy, I find unconvincing: "Live your life as if your actions were to become a universal law."
A Chinese philosopher once wrote: “The West has learned to swim under the sea like fishes; it has learned to fly through the air like birds; but it has not yet learned to walk on the earth like men.” The key word here is "LEARNED:" Man has not learned self-control; and this I believe is the unique contribution of Judaism to our problem: the concept of MITZVA.
The famous Bible commentator Rashi wrote: in the weekly portion Kedoshim: "A man should not say for example: "The very idea of stealing revolts me…I couldn't do it." He should rather say: "I want to do it, but I cannot, because our Father in Heaven has decreed otherwise.”
We know that Man consists of flesh and blood and brain. The body is neither independent nor moral; it is subject to what the brain dictates. The brain can decide that a certain course of action is desirable; but that does not mean that the body will act accordingly. It has been said that all the good words have already been said: all that remains is to put them into practice.
A Torah education provides the solution; the process is similar to that of science. Science has revealed that the concrete world is really empty space filled with energy, vibrating with electromagnetic fields. The Torah, similarly, teaches us that the world is filled with the spirit – the "energy" – of Hashem, invisible in the material, concrete world with which we are familiar. Is this any stranger than the concept of empty space that scientists tell us is the ultimate reality?
“Ah!” you can retort; “But a scientist can prove his thesis by experiments.” Indeed; but the release of enormous power by nuclear fission was achieved only after nearly half a century of research and experiment. Even a scientist working in a laboratory has to be extremely careful that the ingredients he uses are pure; that the temperature is right; that the relative quantities are precise, etc. If one factor is incorrect, the experiment will fail.
In similar fashion, the materials on which the Torah has to work are the heart and the mind of man. They are more unstable – and more susceptible to outside influences – than the raw materials with which the scientist has to work. Time after time the “experiment” fails – as in the laboratory – because the materials are subject to outside influences; a teenager may encounter a fellow pupil who has been infected by ideas that are contrary to Torah teaching; or he may come across written material that raises questions that he cannot answer. But in the absence of such negative influences, the process is successful – not only in the case of outstanding scholars, but in countless ordinary men and women, of the process no less certain as in a successful scientific process.
This is our secret; only through the application of Mitzvot is it possible to forge the character of Man, to improve and enrich his private and social life, and lead him along the path to self-control – in Hebrew parlance – control of his Yetzer – his evil inclination. Perhaps all mankind can learn from this.
Finally, I return to my central message; I would not wish upon my worst enemy that he should come to the end of his life and exclaim: “Why did I do this?” – or “Why didn't I do that?” – followed by those terrible words: “IT'S TOO LATE!”
It is written in the Talmud, Masechet Shabbat: “Rabbi Eleazer said: ‘Repent one day before your death.’” His pupils asked him: “How does anyone know the day of his death?” Rabbi Eleazer replied: “Then repent today, in case you die tomorrow; thus you will repent every day.”
[Meir Abelson received a BA (Hons.) degree from the University of London in Classical & Medieval Hebrew with Aramaic. He is a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, London; Retired Flight-Lieut., Royal Air Force (Britain); and retired Land Valuer at the Chief Government Valuer’s Office, Ministry of Justice, Jerusalem. A researcher of the Arab-Israeli dispute and author for nine years of the monthly “Letter from Jerusalem” which was circulated to nine countries, and printed partly at the Foreign Office and partly at the Prime Minister’s Office.]