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.
I 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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UPDATE: I made an error in the original version of this column and said that he rescued the children from Austria. It was really Czechoslavakia. I’m sorry for the mistake; I’ve corrected it now.