He lived for 106 years, but his claim to immortality happened for only six months. Even those six months he tucked away in the silence of a selfless memory. It is a lesson in humanity for the Nigerian elite.
It happened in 1939 when Adolf Hitler loomed with his Nazi nightmare. With its death showers, starvation, rapes, torture, etc, the concentration camp beckoned all Jews. The world was numb with ignorance.
The camps – in Auschwitz, Sobribor, etc – were not before then and had not since then ever installed human butchery and barbarism of that scale. Jews, whether father, mother or child, were rolled rudely into chambers and incinerated or burned to ashes through what was known as showers of death.
Nicholas Winton, who just died at 106, did not then know about the concentration camps the way we know it today or the way the world came to understand it towards the end of the Second World War in 1945.
He acted swiftly when he heard that Hitler’s army under the cover of its deafly air force known as Luftwaffe, would soon mow down Czechoslovakia. He called off his luxury pastime of skiing, and moved to the east European country for a mission of charity.
He planned to save as many as 900 children by shipping them away from the underbelly of horror in Czechoslovakia. But he succeeded only with 669.
Although of Jewish origin, all his family lived in Britain. He had no family ties in that country. He just knew children were in danger of falling into the jaws of tyranny. He did not have time. Hitler could plunge into the country any time, and so he materialised in the refugee camps in the country, and took down names and photos of the children.
So, he made several trips in early 1939 between London and Prague. Aided by his mother, he set up the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, raised money, called for volunteers who could host the children. He raised some money but not enough. He made the difference from his own purse.
It was a dark time, and he could not transport the children without bribing the Nazi officials. Never a moral purist, he bribed the Nazi police chief known as criminal rat because of his rank known in Germany as Kriminalrat. He cooperated and the bribes reached down to the train operators and officials in Customs and Immigration. The bribes greased the trains through barriers.
He planned and paid for eight trains to take the kids from the country through Cologne, Nuremburg and other ramparts of Nazism through Holland. They were ferried to Essex, from there they took a train to London where British families received them, who took them on as children.
It started in March and ended in August. Seven trains had eluded the Nazi monster. The last and eighth train had 250 children, but before it left, September 1 had dawned savagely when Hitler ordered every border shut down. The children the last train bore were never seen again, and it was assumed that they descended into the oblivion of the concentration camps.
Within six months, he had written himself into the annals of charity and into the front rank of human love. For the rest of his 106 years on earth, nothing so spectacularly was associated with him. “One crowded hour in a glorious life,” penned the poet Thomas Mordaunt, “is worth an age without a name.”
Yet everyone, in Britain and everywhere else, forgot Winton’s act. Not even the beneficiary children sought the man. He hid the scrapbook containing entries of the names of the kids and letters, etc of those months in his attic. He never even told his wife of his heroics.
He was a disinterested hero. His wife saw them and probed him for answers. Even at that, he did not think it was any significant what he did. She thought differently, and made the information available to the media, and that was how the world woke up to a good interred in Winton’s bones.
Most of the beneficiaries did not see their parents after the war. Hitler’s Nazi bears had lapped them up. Some of the parents tearfully parted with their children on train platforms and some of the children yowled not to part with their parents. Today, they call themselves “Winton’s children.”
Some of them have soared to do good to their world. One of them, Renata Laxova, discovered a congenital abnormality named after her. Hugo Marom was a founder of the Israeli Air Force. Joe Schlesinger is a well-known Canadian broadcast correspondent. Karel Riesz is a filmmaker and director, among others, of “The French lieutenant’s Woman.”
Winton operated in a time so perilous that the poet W.H. Auden described it as when “the clever hopes expire/ of a low dishonest decade,” when “the unmentionable odour of death offends the September night.”
What has happened to our elite? How many of us have done so much good and cut ourselves out of our comfort zone for the weak and vulnerable among us? The irony is that we pride ourselves as weaned on the communal ethos.
This column has called for the rich to adopt wards in hospital, students in indigent schools, chaperon the wild and wayward orphan, etc. It is taken for granted in the West where the individual is king.
Yet here the rich stash their loot, their mansions and skyscrapers defy heaven, while their posh cars splash rainwater on the lolling poor. Too many are poor, but where is the balm from the well-heeled?
Boko Haram victims teem everyday among us, but we moan in the retreats of our cosy homes and wait only for the government. The rich make money mainly from the government, perhaps that explains why they do not think they owe anybody, after they grease back the palm that first oiled them.
We should imitate Winton. It is good men like him that make a good society.