In today’s post I’m honored – and delighted – to share with you my interview with my very first French knight. The title of a Knight in the Legion of Honor is the highest honor granted by the French state. A knight in France, by the way, is called a chevalier. (Am I the only one who thought it was just a last name, like Maurice Chevalier?) It’s like being called “Sir” in England.
Noah Klieger received the honor this past January for his contributions to French society.
I met Noah in 1980 when I was working as a journalist in Rome and he was on assignment in the city: We both happened to be covering the same new story. I was impressed, moved, fascinated and spellbound by his life’s stories then and 32 years later, I’m still in awe each time I see him.
Noah was born in France in 1926 and by the age of 15, he was fighting with a resistance group against the Nazis until he was captured and sent to Auschwitz. A commander of Auschwitz, Heinrich Schwarz, was a boxing fanatic who put together a boxing club with inmates to entertain the Nazi soldiers.
Noah raised his hand to join the club. “Life was hard enough in Auschwitz when you worked all day and got little to no food,” Noah said. “But if you joined the boxing club, you got an extra liter of soup and that extra liter of soup kept me going for a few months.” In 1990, he was inducted in the Jewish Hall of Fame in Los Angeles with super-athletes like Mark Spitz and Sandy Koufax. “Not because I was good but it was symbolic,” Noah said. Today, Noah is the boxing club’s last survivor. (If you’re interested in learning more about Auschwitz’s boxing club, go here or you can read about the film, “Triumph of the Spirit,” based on one boxer’s life.)
After Auschwitz, Noah served as first mate aboard the Exodus, the famous ship containing 4,600 people who had survived the Holocaust and were headed for the shoreline of what would then become Israel. British warships attacked the ship, killing four and wounding dozens, but the ship was eventually allowed to land. From there, Noah fought in the War of Independence in 1948.
When the war was over, Noah had no work, survived on food rations, and slept for weeks on a bench in Tel Aviv. He wanted to work as a journalist and although he couldn’t write in Hebrew, within five years he was writing for Israel’s largest newspaper. He has also served as chairman of various international sports committees. More importantly, he’s still writing articles and editorials for the same newspaper, making him, at age 86, when one of the oldest active journalists in the world. Here is an excerpt from my interview with Noah on March 29, 2012:
What do you think someone can do to be a hero?
You must do what is important to you. In addition to your profession, you should do things to help your community. It doesn’t matter what you do. Whether it’s working with old people or taking care of cats. Lawyers can give free consultations and doctors can charge less. Everyone should give something.
You should ask yourself: What can I do to contribute to society? You must do something besides just work.
What do you think your purpose in life is?
I am convinced that I survived Auschwitz only to tell about Auschwitz. Why me and not 1,400,000 others? Only 50,000 of us survived. God gave me a talent to write and to speak so my mission is to teach people what happened in the Shoah (the Holocaust). I don’t take any money for when I speak about it – if I did, I’d be a millionaire. I still speak at least two times a week all over the world. I have spoken in the Sydney, Australia Opera House and I’ve spoken to two kids who are 10 years old. So that’s my mission.
You’re 86. Why don’t you retire and take it easy?
What would be the point of that? You get up, drink coffee and read the newspaper. Okay. Then you go to the gym or play tennis or golf. Okay. Then what? You should wake up and know what you’re going to do. I’ve never stopped working and I don’t plan on it. People die from not having a purpose in life.
Do you consider yourself a hero?
I’m not a hero. I’m a man who wanted to do things I thought were right and important and I more or less succeeded. Some people might say I’m a hero but this is the secret: Do what you are supposed to do. Do it as well as you can.
Not all of us go through tests in life of such epic proportions as Noah did. But we each face our own challenges in life every day. What have you done that you think has made you a hero of your own life?