This is a story of a man who truly mastered the art of survival. Max Ostro, born in Poland in 1926, was 17 when he, his brother and his parents were rounded up by the Nazis to be sent to the Treblinka death camp. Realizing what was ahead, his parents, Reb Shmuel and Sara Chana, urged Ostro and his brother Chanina to jump from the speeding train in an attempt to try to save themselves. Unfortunately, his brother died from the impact, but Ostro managed to survive, sustaining a head injury and typhoid fever.
Ostro escaped death once again when he was later caught and spent 18 months in a labor camp. Miraculously he escaped just as he was about to be transported to Auschwitz. During that time, he made numerous attempts to sneak in and out of camps in his quest to find members of his family. A friend helped him find safety, but after fleeing an SS raid he was forced to bury himself in a human grave where he survived through a small hole providing him air and a meager bag of potatoes for sustenance.
When World War II ended, Ostro returned to his hometown only to find that his house had become inhabited with new people who had no interest in him or his story. Ostro decided to emigrate to South America where he began his entrepreneurship: a highly successful career in gemstones that sent him across the world in search of jewels. Dubbed the Jewish Indiana Jones, Ostro was credited with discovering the world’s largest chunk of Blue Topaz from deep in the Amazon in the mid 1980s, making him famous in Britain and other areas of the world.
Ostro’s success and wealth grew rapidly, but it is the story of his incredible perseverance that his family wants to share. Stripped of all his belongings by the Nazis, Ostro went from nothing to something, building a gem empire and dedicating his life to helping others philanthropically. Having risen from the depths of despair, he was relentless in his pursuit to revitalize Jewish communities across the world, according to his grandson Marc Hershberg.
“I am very proud to be the grandson of Max Ostro, z”l, and consider him the most courageous man I know. With perseverance, sacrifice and hard work he raised a family of incredible and loving souls and gave us the tools and spirit to succeed. As he always used to say to us in the words of Winston Churchill: Never, never, never give up,” conveyed Hershberg.
Traveling to 25 countries throughout his lifetime, Ostro spent a lot of time and resources rebuilding Jewish life, particularly in the Far East and South America. He traveled the world in search of gems, and along the way built Chabad establishments in many locations, always attempting to spread the light of Torah and Judaism—the same light that the Nazis attempted to extinguish when he was a mere teenager running for his life.
Rabbi Kantor of Chabad of Thailand shared a very close bond with Ostro, whom he called Rav Menachem Mendel. He recounts visiting Ostro’s kever, which was both emotional and uplifting for him. “I was a bit ‘down in the dumps’ before I got to the gravesite, but standing at the resting place of the very dear Rav Menachem Mendel and reading the inscription on his matzeva (monument) about his indomitable faith and incredible philanthropic spirit filled me with a special calm and peaceful frame of mind,” Rabbi Kantor articulated. Rabbi Kantor recently spoke to a group of yeshiva boys and shared stories about Ostro and his benevolence and compassion to klal Yisrael, which the young men found very inspiring. Rabbi Kantor believes that encouraging the next generation to rise higher in their connection to Hashem would be Max’s greatest desire and a source of nachat for his neshama.
Rabbis and dignitaries worldwide were saddened to learn about the passing of Max Ostro in 2010. Many sent words of condolence to the family, expressing both profound sorrow and pride in having known such a unique individual. In his book “A Meaningful Life” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks mentioned Ostro and his remarkable story of survival during the Holocaust. Everyone he encountered was touched by his humanitarian ways and his invincible spirit.
Ostro’s continued strength and spirit was clearly ingrained in his children. Anna Ostro, Max’s daughter, recalls him teaching her and her brother how to approach life. “Believe in yourself. Fight for what you want to achieve; always be optimistic and know that Hashem is with you. You are never alone.” That was the way he lived his life, and his family is trying to continue his legacy with those guiding principles.
Ostro’s story has been recounted in several books including “My Leap From the Train to Treblinka,” which Ostro wrote to offer readers an insight into the tragedies endured by his family. Ostro embodied the concept of perseverance and resilience. Throughout his life he faced many threatening situations, only to emerge stronger in his mind and soul. His faith never wavered, despite the atrocities he endured as a young child en route to Treblinka. The Ostro family believes his story speaks to the ages, imparting the critical message that when life presents challenges, determination and grit can help you succeed.
Max Ostro was and will always be a guiding light for his family, and by sharing his story they hope others will be inspired by his heroic nature as well. As we commemorate fallen heroes this month, on both Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron, the Ostro family believes this story pays tribute to a true hero: Max Ostro. “My Leap From the Train to Treblinka” is available for purchase on eBay, with all proceeds benefiting the United States Holocaust Memorial. It is also available electronically on the Amazon Kindle bookstore.
By Andrea Nissel