September 18, 2019

Nicholas Winton and the goodness effect

In our celebrity-obsessed, information-worshiping culture, where TED Talks determine what’s cool, and technology icons are conferred with near-mythological status, it’s good to be reminded of who the real heroes are. 

Last week, we learned of the death of 106-year-old Sir Nicholas Winton, a London stockbroker by trade, who for nearly 50 years said nothing of his role in saving the lives of 669 children from Czechoslovakia, mostly Jewish, on the eve of World War II.

“I wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Nicholas Winton,” Kim Masters, editor-at-large for The Hollywood Reporter and host of KCRW’s “The Business,” said during a phone interview last week. “And neither would my siblings, my daughter, my nieces and nephews, my cousins …”

Kim Masters is the daughter of Alice Masters, one of the children Winton saved. Often called “the British Schindler,” Winton was only 29 years old when he skipped a Swiss skiing vacation after a friend asked him to come to Prague to witness an escalating refugee crisis. It was December 1938, and the Nazis had just seized the Sudetenland, the German-speaking western region of Czechoslovakia, displacing thousands of people into refugee camps — in the dead of winter. There, a young Winton saw the brutal living conditions of the refugees, the freezing, frightened children, their parents overwhelmed by despair, and decided to do something very leading man. 

“I work on the motto that if something’s not impossible, there must be a way of doing it,” Winton said on “60 Minutes” last year. There would be no turning the page, no business as usual after Winton bore witness; feeling bad was a luxury this stockbroker couldn’t afford. “All I know was that the people that I met couldn’t get out, and they were looking for ways of at least getting their children out.”

Winton went Bond-like in his rescue efforts, employing a little bit of trickery to get the job done: He forged documents, bribed and blackmailed officials and created a front organization, the Children’s Section of the British Committee for Refugees From Czechoslovakia, in order to execute his plan. Although American President Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to help, the British government agreed to take the children if Winton found host families, which he did, often guaranteeing these “adoptions” with his own money.

Within six months, the first of seven trains organized by Winton and his friends chugged through Nazi Germany and into Holland, where the precious child-cargo was ferried to the English coast and finally put on trains to London. An eighth train carrying 250 lives never left the station.

Alice Masters was 14 when her parents, Sidonia and Salamon, put their three daughters — including Alice’s sisters Josi, then 15, and Elli, 10 — on one of Winton’s trains. At the time, none of them had ever heard of Nicholas Winton, and it would be many decades before they would learn of his role in their fate. That day at the train station, there was only the agony of parents parting with their children — indefinitely. The distress was so visceral, Kim Masters said, the two older sisters begged their parents to “keep” the youngest, and her grandmother removed 10-year-old Elli from the train, embracing her one last time before putting her back on. For a while there were letters, and then, finally, silence.

“That story was never discussed when we were children,” Masters said. “Like many, many children of the Holocaust … a lot of effort was made to blend in and not talk about that. So we just didn’t talk about it. It was not part of our family lore.” 

By age 14, Masters had learned about her mother’s and aunts’ shared past, but it remained taboo at the dinner table. It wasn’t until 1988, when the BBC learned of Winton’s story and invited him to sit in the audience for an episode of “That’s Life!” that there was a silver lining to the tale of Hitler’s slaughter.

Before rolling cameras, Winton was introduced to a woman whom he had saved many years before. She presented him with her forged travel document and kissed him on the cheek. Winton remained seated in the audience, completely unassuming, until, suddenly, the moderator of the show asked whether anyone else had been saved by Nicholas Winton. “If so, could you stand up, please?”

The whole audience stood.

Winton would later say this was “the most emotional moment” of his life. But for Masters and her family, it had a different, stunning effect: “When you don’t have the presence of Nicholas Winton in the story, it’s a pretty awful story,” Masters said. But the addition of Winton’s heroism, his moral courage, ingenuity and human goodness somehow changed the tragic story. “Instead of being a story with just death and destruction, it became the story of a hero.”

In the darkest period of modern history, Winton symbolized “the power of good,” Masters said.

Winton was not always a willing hero; for a long time he was reluctant to speak about the past, and reticent when he did. It took time for him to adjust to the world’s attention and praise. When Masters’ mother invited him for dinner in the 1990s, her seasoned reporter-daughter tried to draw him out.  

“He was absolutely unwilling,” Masters recalled. “He simply would not engage. To him, I think, this was one episode in his life, and it became so defining. He was kind of, a little bit, maybe baffled by the whole thing.” And also, she said, a little bit guilty. There were others who had assisted Winton, but they died unacknowledged. “I think he ultimately decided, ‘This is the role I have been given, and I will accept this role.’ ” 

It is evident during interviews in his later years — including one from 2008 with Masters for National Public Radio — that Winton warmed to the role of “hero,” revealing himself to be an eloquent but laconic man whose lips flowed with wisdom. By the time of his death, he had amassed many prestigious honors: He was knighted by the queen, nominated for the Nobel Prize, made an honorary citizen of Prague and received countless letters of appreciation from presidents and prime ministers the world over. Books were written about him and documentaries made; though none of these accolades compare with the actual impact of what he did:  Many thousands of people are alive today because he had the courage to respond to his conscience. 

As a child, Masters said, “I always used to have this thing in the back of my mind, like, if the s— really hit the fan, which of my Christian friends would hide me? Who was really a righteous person? I always wondered: Would you? Would you? And even, would I? Because the courage it would take to hide people, that is incredible courage. 

“And I wonder if my grandparents knew,” she added wistfully, “as the end was coming near, if they knew they had saved their children?” 

Winton is the hero we know, but he wasn’t the only one.