“To Save One Life Is As If You Have Saved The World:” Nicholas Winton And The “Kindertransport”

https://i0.wp.com/i.telegraph.co.uk/telegraph/multimedia/archive/00647/news-graphics-2007-_647598a.jpg

It was an easy story to miss: the 100th birthday of someone you’ve never heard of. Not even someone from the USA. But to some people, the most important man in their lives. Indeed, the man without whom they would have no life.

Sir Nicholas Winton was born 100 years ago in England on September 4, 1909. In late 1938 he set out to create an organization designed to find a place for Jewish children in Czechoslovakia imperiled by the Nazis. Only a short time before, England passed a law allowing children to take refuge there within limits: they needed a sponsoring home in England and 50 pounds sterling as an advance toward a return trip back to Eastern Europe, at such time as political events would permit. In all, 669 children no older than 16 made the train trip, thanks to the efforts of Winton and others to find sponsors for these young people (in effect, adoptive parents), the money to support their travel, and the necessary 50 pounds for the hoped for return that was not to come.

One can only imagine the feelings of the parents and the children as the latter boarded the transport; parents promising their children, as many did, that they would all be reunited. Of course, death in the Holocaust would dash such expectations. The project ended when the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, World War II broke out, and safe passage across the continent was no longer possible.

Typical of many rescuers, Winton made little fanfare of his altruism. Indeed, until 1988, when he was nearly 80, not even his wife knew what he had done. Only her accidental discovery of a scrapbook documenting his activities led to wider acknowledgment of Winton’s good works, including a Knighthood and a nomination for the Noble Peace Prize by the Czech government.

On September 1, 2009 several of the children Winton saved, now elderly themselves, took the original train used in the Kindertransport in a replication of the journey they had made 70 years before. And when they reached London, Sir Nicholas was there to greet them. Many brought along their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. In all, there are approximately 7000 descendants of the original group saved by this man. Children were among those most vulnerable to the Nazis, so it is safe to say that few if any of the 669, not to mention their descendants, would be alive but for the generosity and effort of Sir Nicholas.

The Jewish Talmud states that “to save one life is as if you have saved the world.”

Indeed.

The 1939 photo is of Nicholas Winton with a child he saved. The NY Times obituary can be found here: Nicholas Winton NY Times Obituary.

A Few Good Books

You won’t be looking at this unless you are a reader. So here are a few brief recommendations of books that have made a lasting impression on me. Most are not new and I suspect that some are out of print, but are likely to be obtainable by a search on the Internet. In no particular order:

1. Frauen by Allison Owings. Owings comes as close as anyone to answering the question, “How did the Holocaust Happen.” An American journalist who studied in Germany, she returned there to interview mostly gentile women who had lived through the period of the Third Reich. Owings summary does an extraordinary job of describing the psychology of the bystanding German population.

2.  A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. Irving gives away the plot of his novel early on: Owen Meany will die an unusual death. But rather than destroying the tension of the book, this puts the reader in Owen’s shoes as a man who knows that he will come to an untimely end, but doesn’t know exactly how. As the book progresses and that end comes closer, the terror is almost unbearable.

3.  Agitato by Jerome Toobin. The story of Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra in the one decade that it attempted to survive after his retirement. If you enjoy anecdotes about famous musicians, this book is for you. The tale Toobin tells is both funny and sad, since the orchestra did not last. Jerome Toobin, by the way, is the father of Jeffrey Toobin, the legal scholar and public intellectual.

4.  Regret: the Persistence of the Possible by Janet Landman. A book about the title emotion, viewed from literary, psychological, and other perspectives.

5.  What is the Good Life? by Luc Ferry. A very good attempt to answer the biggest question of all: what is the meaning of life?

6.  The Long Walk by Slavomir Ramicz. The author tells the true story of his escape from a Siberian prison camp. He and his compatriots, with almost no equipment, food, or appropriate clothing, attempted to walk to freedom and Western Civilization, which took them as far as India. As you can imagine, not all of them made it. That anyone at all did is astonishing.

7.  Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. This story of an unhappily married Russian woman touches on almost all that is important in life: love, friendship, obligation, children, religion, the value (or lack) of value to be found in work and education, death, and the meaning of life. None of that would matter much without the author’s gift of telling his story and allowing these issues to flow out of the human relationships and events he describes.

8.  The Boys of  Summer by Roger Kahn. Kahn’s classic tribute to the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team of the 1950s, the team that had Jackie Robinson as its central figure and leader.

9.  War Without Mercy by John Dower. Dower describes the racism that underpinned the Pacific theater of World War II. Unlike the war in Europe, each side viewed the other as less than human and treated the enemy with a brutality consistent with that view.

10.  The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch. Although the book is now a few decades old, the writer’s message is still spot on. He looks at the empty pursuit of happiness in material things and acquisitions, driven by the increasingly disconnected nature of social relationships in this country, and the promise of the media that happiness lies, not in fulfilling human contact, but in the goods that come with “success.”

11.  The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. A fantastic and touching creation about a man unstuck in time, thrown forward and back, and the woman who loves him. Its being made into a movie, I’m told.

12. Patrimony by Philip Roth. Roth’s account of the illness and death of his father.

13.  The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker . More than one person has told me that this is the finest nonfiction book they have ever read. It is a meditation on what it means to be mortal, and how the knowledge we all have of our inevitable demise influences how we live, in both conscious and unconscious ways. Becker’s book has lead to an entire area of psychological research called “Terror Management Theory.”

14.  For Your Own Good by Alice Miller. Miller is a controversial Swiss psychiatrist who looks at the effect of harsh upbringing on the welfare of children. If you believe that children should be seen and not heard, this book might make you think twice.

15.  A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. A story of self sacrifice and heroism set in the French Revolution. If you can read the last few pages without tears, you have a firmer grip on your emotions that I have on mine.

16.  The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence Ritter. Ritter was a college professor when he began to travel around the country in the 1960s, tape recorder in tow, to obtain the first hand stories of the great baseball players of the first two decades of the 20th century, who were by then very old men. Probably as great an oral history as any of those written by Studs Terkel, and perhaps the greatest baseball book ever.

17.  American Prometheus: the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. Oppenheimer is the man who brought the Manhattan Project to fruition, that is, helped create the bomb we used to end World War II in 1945. But more than that, this book is a wonderful biography of a complex, peculiar, and brilliant man, who was brought low by those who wished to discredit his opposition to nuclear proliferation in the period after the war.

18.  The Mascot by Mark Kurzem. A story that is beyond belief, but turns out to be true. The central figure of the story, when he was a little boy, was adopted as a mascot by a Latvian SS troop after surviving the murder of his family. Why beyond belief? Because he was Jewish. The book reads like the most extraordinary mystery.

19.  All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. The most famous anti-war novel ever written. The book is told from the standpoint of a young German infantryman during World War I.