This is post 1 of my series of 7 posts in 7 days. All the time, I run across news articles or blog posts or radio segments that make me want to answer them aloud with my own take on the situation. So that’s what I’m doing this week. For each of these seven days, I’ll take a recent item (by someone much more original than myself) and I’ll comment on it. That’s it, but that’s something!
A couple of weeks ago, I read an article in the New York Times about Sir Nicholas Winton, who died on July 1st at the age of 106. I had vaguely recalled his story (if not his name), no doubt from something I once saw shared on Facebook. But this time, since the gentleman had just died, I paid closer attention.
Mr. Winton — Sir Nicholas in England since 2003, when he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II — was a London stockbroker in December 1938 when, on an impulse, he canceled a Swiss skiing vacation and flew to Prague at the behest of a friend who was aiding refugees in the Sudetenland, the western region of Czechoslovakia that had just been annexed by Germany.
“Don’t bother to bring your skis,” the friend, Martin Blake, advised in a phone call.
By the time Mr. Winton returned to Britain a few weeks later, he’d had far from his originally-planned experience of relaxing on the slopes. No, Mr. Winton had put in motion efforts that would eventually lead to the rescue of 669 mostly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia.
Please do read the entire New York Times article – it’s an amazing story, beautifully told.
Just the bones of it would be enough to move most people: Man takes an impromptu trip, ends up saving 669 children from almost-certain death.
But then there’s: Man, with just a few volunteers (including his mother), works tirelessly to register children for transport, photograph them and advertise their photos to potential foster families, appeal for funds and provide his own, obtain and even forge documents, and ultimately do whatever it took, bribery included, to successfully arrange for eight trainloads of children to make their way from the dangers of pre-WWII Czechoslovakia to the safety of Great Britain.
And: Man, orchestrator of one of the greatest rescues of World War II, places all evidence of his work in the attic, never even bothering to bring it up to his wife.
After finding his long-hidden scrapbook — crammed with names, pictures, letters from families, travel documents and notes crediting his colleagues — his wife asked for an explanation. He gave her a general idea, but said he thought the papers had no value and suggested discarding them.
“You can’t throw those papers away,” she responded. “They are children’s lives.”
Amazing – the story is simply amazing. After it came to light in 1988, Mr. Winton received honors and praises from all corners. But more importantly, he connected with many of the children whose lives he had saved, and with some of their descendants, who now number more than 6,000.
Reading the New York Times article a couple of weeks ago, and then reading Mr. Winton’s obituary in The Economist yesterday morning, I was struck most by the fact that this man – this man who did an incredible thing, which ultimately allowed for the preservation and creation of thousands of lives – he was just a normal person.
Mr. Winton wasn’t a government official, he wasn’t an adventurer or a clergyman or an expert in the nonprofit sector – he was a stockbroker who decided to skip out on a ski trip. On his detour, he found people in need, so he helped them.
There was a job to be done, so he did it.
Why did he do it?
He never really explained, though he offered a bare rationale in an interview with The New York Times in 2001: “One saw the problem there, that a lot of these children were in danger, and you had to get them to what was called a safe haven, and there was no organization to do that. Why did I do it? Why do people do different things? Some people revel in taking risks, and some go through life taking no risks at all.”
That’s not much of an answer, but maybe he didn’t have one to give. After all, how would one answer the reverse of the question?
Why didn’t others do it?
Why, when Mr. Winston wrote to American governors, senators, and even President Roosevelt, would none of them do what he did? According to the piece in The Economist, “He could have rescued at least 2,000 more, he said later, if America had been willing to take any.”
Why didn’t others orchestrate similar efforts for Jewish children in other Eastern European countries? Why, when the British government organized transports for children from Germany and Austria, did they not do so for those elsewhere?
Why don’t we, when we learn of the six million Syrian refugees inside Syria and the 4 million outside it, act?
What makes some people look at a faraway, impossible-seeming situation and decide to do something about it, and others look and do nothing? Or worse, not look at all?
Given that I’ll soon be responsible, full-time, for four children under the age of six, I’m under no illusion that I can set up shop in the refugee camps of Turkey and Jordan and go about saving the world right then and there.
But having read Mr. Winton’s story, I think it’s time for me to stop assuming that I’m incapable of making a difference on those things that don’t necessarily “concern” me. What kind of a life would I be living if I never sought anything out, if I chose to only deal with the things that land neatly in my lap?
Who will be the Mr. Wintons of tomorrow? Could you or I be among them?