A friend called, upset, the other day.
She had heard a sad story on the news – Dylan Smith, a hero of the recent Hurricane Sandy, had died in Puerto Rico.
He was 23. He was surfing off the coast, apparently floundered, and drowned. A lifeguard at Rockaway Beach, Queens, he was an experienced surfer.
When the Superstorm struck, he (and neighbor Michael McDonnell) used his surfboard to ferry stranded residents (from a half-dozen to a dozen, according to various reports) in Belle Harbor to safety from the rising floodwaters and burning houses. He paddled from porch to porch, fashioning a makeshift rope from electric cords and twine that he gripped as he walked the people on the surfboard to safety.
People magazine named Smith one of its Heroes of 2012.
Two months later he was dead.
“It doesn’t seem fair,” my friend, a religious woman, said.
This was his reward for heroism?
It’s a question as old as the Torah.
And as recent as the Holocaust.
Last year I saw an English-subtitled version of Agnieszka Holland’s Polish film “In Darkness,” about Leopold Socha, a sewer inspector in Lvov – then in Poland, now Lviv in Ukraine – who used his knowledge of the city’s subterranean tunnels to rescue Jews from the occupying Nazis and local collaborators. For more than a year he risked his life, and in the end – after first accepting payment – used his own funds to feed the Jews, mostly strangers, bringing them food and newspapers and moral support. Somehow, he found a prayer book for them. For Passover, he brought a sack of potatoes. Once, he convinced German soldiers who were about to mine the area that explosions would set off buried gas pipes and blow up everything, the Germans included.
A onetime petty crook who had spent time in jail, he said his wartime efforts were his penance, his way to redeem his soul.
Of the 21 Jews he sheltered, ten survived; some died in the sewers, others fled.
“My Jews,” he called the group.
In 1946, a Soviet military truck careened toward Socha and his daughter, who were riding bikes on a Lvov street. He steered his bike towards his daughter to knock her out of the way; he saved her life; he was killed, at 35, his blood dripping into the sewer.
Look what you get for saving Jews, anti-Semites said.
According to Jewish tradition, every person gets as long a life as he or she needs to complete one’s mission. Maybe Socha’s was to save lives – the Jews’ during the war, his daughter’s afterwards. Maybe he gained extra years because of his actions.
Yad Vashem named Socha – and his wife Magdalena, who assisted in the rescue effort – to its list of Righteous Among the Nations in 1978. Holland’s 2011 film, which was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film, told Socha’s story to another generation.
That’s what I told my friend. Smith – like Socha – led a fulfilled life. Maybe that’s why he was here – for admittedly, a short time.
“This precious soul,” McDonnell, wrote in the Daily News, “was put on this earth to make a difference and have meaning.”