On Those Who Deserve Fame

Every Friday my column appears in a bunch of papers in Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week I wanted to address what it means to be a True Hero.

On Those Who Deserve FameI recently served on a committee looking for leadership for a nonprofit organization, and we joked that one of our criteria was that the people we would ask would not want to do it. People who don’t want the spotlight often end up being better leaders.

People who crave attention usually don’t deserve it.

I was reminded of this when I read the story of Nicholas Winton. Winton grew up in a British Jewish family that later converted to Christianity. In 1938 he decided to forego a ski holiday in Switzerland to go to Prague to help a friend who was involved with Jewish refugee work.

After Kristallnacht, when the Nazis started overt persecution of the Jews, Winton single-handedly set up an aid organization to transport Czechoslavakian Jewish children to Britain, arranging for families to look after them once they arrived.

Most of those children’s parents later perished in Auschwitz, but 669 children made it to Britain. Tragically, the last train that was scheduled to leave, full of 250 little ones, never made it. Those children were sent to Auschwitz instead.

Winton had to contend with physical danger in Czechoslavakia, red tape in Britain, and trouble in the Netherlands to get the kids to safety, but he persevered with no resources except his own determination.

What hit me most about his story, though, other than the amazing heroism, was the fact that he never told anybody.

In 1988, his wife Grete was rooting through the attic when she came across his famous ledger where he had taken painstaking notes about the identity and whereabouts of all of the children. She went public and he has since been honoured by the British government, the Czechoslavakian government, and the Israeli government. He was even touchingly reunited on a television documentary with dozens of the children that he rescued.

At 104 years of age Winton has outlived many of the children that he saved. And yet he never desired fame or recognition. He did it because he felt compelled to. He couldn’t NOT do it.

I wonder, though, if one of the reasons he couldn’t come forward was that even though he saved 669, the 250 who didn’t make it still haunted him. I remember the end of Schindler’s List, when Oskar Schindler was overwhelmed with the thought that if he had just sold a few more possessions he could have saved dozens more. Or there is Charles Mulli, a Kenyan who opened a children’s home initially for a dozen children, and now cares for more than 3000. When he goes into the slums, though, he’s still overwhelmed by the need.

Real heroes don’t look for fame, because real heroes pay the price. It’s not a game about fame or fortune; it’s a real life struggle to do what’s right, to stand up to evil, to make a real difference in the midst of heartbreaking circumstances. It means opening yourself up to true tragedy. That is never easy.

Winton was and is a real hero, and his story deserves to be told, far more than whether or not Jennifer Aniston is pregnant or whether or not another Kardashian is getting a divorce.

The things that our culture cares about are a measure of that culture. We are a petty culture, and yet amongst us there are still calm, quiet giants. It behooves us to wade through all of our silly noise and take time listen to their very important stories.

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  1. Butterflywings says:

    Love this post. I heard about this guy last year. He is a true hero.

  2. Somebody worth looking up to, thank you for sharing his story!

    • You’re so welcome! It does brighten my day to think about him, especially with all the news out of Ukraine and Syria and all the other hotspots. There are always heroes even in the darkest places and darkest times.

  3. YES!!! Just so much yes!! Thank you.
    Kendra Burrows recently posted…What Kind of Parents…?My Profile

  4. What an inspiring story! And you’re so right about the kind of people seeking attention rarely being the kind who deserve it. Sadly, our culture is far too often fixated on pop culture – the shallow and unworthy.

    Erma Bombeck said, “Never confuse fame with success. Madonna is one; Helen Keller is the other.”
    Julie recently posted…Wednesday Brain Dump… In Pictures!My Profile

  5. Sheila, just a quick typo heads-up (third paragraph from the end, second sentence): “it’s a real life struggle to do what’s right, to stand up for evil,” I suspect you meant to say “stand up to evil” or “stand up against evil”. :)

  6. When two devastating wildfires ripped through my city less than a year apart, our community lost hundreds upon hundreds of homes. And you know what the firefighters thought when people thanked them for their hard work? “But we lost that one…and that one…and that one…” No matter how much success they had in containing the fire (which was a lot!) they were devastated that they couldn’t save every home. That is often what true heroes think.

  7. This post, and his story, reminds me of so many who serve and no one knows what they do, or have done. They just do it. The Fire Marshalls who fought on 9/11 (and were my friends, and brothers in the fire service) never thought about those they saved, just the ones they couldn’t. That is what haunts them. Thank you for saluting the unsung heroes, in an age of idols we need more heroes! Bless you my friend.
    Shanyn recently posted…Expectant BelieverMy Profile

  8. Beautiful story.

    Another weird typo alert “…Netherlands to get the kids to safety, but her persevered with no resources except his own determination.” I think he mean *he persevered* instead of *her persevered*

    Sorry for the nitpicking, but that one actually tripped me up. I was like ??? isn’t he a dude? I had to read it three times before I figured it out.

  9. Amen! Who cares about the Kardashians, I am sick to death of hearing about them.

  10. Thanks for this refreshing piece. I’m reminded of the Jesuit proverb, “A great deal of good can be done in this world if we are not worried about who will get the credit.” Let’s keep sharing these alternative stories in our culture.
    Harriette recently posted…Two sides of Camel ControversyMy Profile

  11. Heroism is a peculiar thing. Most who are proclaimed as such seem to eschew the title. To me, there are two types of heroes. There is the “call to duty hero” as in rescue and protective services and the armed forces. These people place themselves in harms way as a matter of course and are often involved in heroic actions by virtue of their duty. There is a second type of hero who, by virtue of choosing to do what is honorable, moral and just, places their life at risk for another. For whatever reason they act, we owe them both much gratitude and, in some cases, our lives. God bless those who do in the moment what later seems to be an unreasonable act that places them at risk to their own well-being.
    Dan recently posted…“Look away! I’m hideous.”: Part 1My Profile

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