Updated: Jul 16, 2020
It's Nicholas Winton's birthday.
His story: It was December 1938, a month after the infamous pogroms of Kristallnacht. Winton was a 29-year-old British bachelor and stockbroker who had planned a vacation skiing with friends in the Alps. But another friend, who was working with refugees in the part of Czechoslovakia that had just been annexed by Germany, suggested he go there instead. Winton was an idealist and a son of Jewish German immigrants who had converted to Christianity. He chose to spend his vacation with the refugees.
What he found were thousands of families living in squalor and fear in a mostly-Jewish refugee camp. At that point, the world knew that the Nazis were persecuting Jews... and most of Europe had closed its borders against a flood of refugees. Britain, however, was willing to take children, so long as they had a family that was willing to host them and return fare so they could go back home when it was safe. There was an organization that was transporting children from Germany and Austria to safety. But there was nothing in Czechoslovakia and it seemed that nothing could be done there. The neighbors had closed their borders against fleeing Jews. Border guards would search for them and hand them back to Germany.
Winton, with some equally idealistic friends, decided to save them anyway.
It involved confrontations with the Gestapo, bribery, a mountain of paperwork and a great deal of cash. Winton returned to London after 3 weeks in which he collected names and photographs of 2,000 children needing rescue. He worked tirelessly there while his friends continued the work in Prague. Winton advertised in newpapers, church bulletins and synagogues and found homes for some 900 children. He raised a sizeable sum in donations, but not enough. The rest he paid out of pocket. When the British bureaucracy couldn't produce entry visas fast enough, he forged the necessary documents. War was about to break out. Lives were on the line. He could not wait.
The trainloads of children started leaving Prague in March, 1939. By early August, seven trains had carried a total of 669 children to safety. The eighth was supposed to leave on September 1, 1939, but that was the day that Hitler invaded Poland and the 250 children on that train were lost. Only two of them survived the war.
At the war's end, the vast majority of Winton's children were orphans. His compassion and determination had saved their lives.
What strikes me about Winton's story is his readiness to step up and take on an impossible task. He could have told himself that this was a job for the Refugee Children's Movement. They were actively working to save children in Germany and Austria and had all the expertise. Meanwhile, Winton was nobody. A 29-year-old bachelor with no experience in international relations or charitable fundraising or evading the Gestapo. Yet he wound up doing it anyway and lobbying other governments, including the US, to help. He wanted to save thousands but only Sweden responded to his appeals.
What were Winton's qualifications? A willing heart, a determination to do the good that needed doing, and a belief that the impossible could be done.
Maybe those are the only qualifications that really matter.
Maybe I should remind myself of that the next time I see something important that needs doing. The world has no shortage of problems. It has a shortage of willing hands. And no-one who sees a need and decides to do something about it is a nobody. At least, not for long.
(Originally posted May 19, 2020)