A hero died today.
Not an actor who pressed the boundaries of decency, not a man who could throw a ball further or run faster than most others, and certainly not a politician who fancied himself a statesman.
This man was a hero.
Chances are you never heard of him. And chances are none of us would have had his wife not decided that big scrapbook in the attic had value. So instead of throwing it out, she sought to donate it to a museum. But none wanted it. So, in the attic it remained.
While having lunch with a friend, she mentioned this scrapbook and her difficulty with finding it a home. Her friend was fascinated, so much so, that she insisted that her newspaper-editor-husband publish a story about it.
That was the day the world heard about a man named Nicholas Winton.
For the first time, the story of how one young and unmarried stockbroker had saved the lives of 669 children just before the start of World War Two. A story that had resided silently in his attic for fifty years.
His 1938 Christmas vacation was interrupted when a friend asked him to come to Prague to help with some Jewish relief work. There, Nicholas found armies of citizens fleeing the nazis. But there was no place for them to go. All governments closed their borders to these refugees.
“If we can’t get the families out, maybe we can at least get the children out,” Nicholas said. But, no, every nation, including the United States and Nicholas’ own country, Great Britain, refused. But he would not give up. Finally, his government gave him permission to proceed, but he would have to put up a cash bond and would have to handle all the arrangements and details with no government assistance.
So, Nicholas set to work. He put ads in British newspapers seeking temporary homes for children. Back in Prague, they began organizing the thousands of children parents were begging to have rescued. Nicholas began to match them all up.
The rescued children were identified by the numbers hanging around their necks. But Nicholas had a photograph of each child, sometimes a family photo, and a family history that he meticulously compiled along with each number. That big book his wife did not want to throw out told the life story of each of Nicky’s 669 children: where they came from and where they went.
So, imagine being one of those 669 and now, past your fiftieth birthday, for the first time you read the backstory of how your life was spared and how you survived the horrible fate of less fortunate millions.
The BBC clip shows this story being introduced to the world.
Now you understand why I called him a hero. He did all that he could do. He left the telling of the story to others. He lived his years in quiet modesty. All 106 of them.
I join with the crowds who say goodbye. As he is laid to rest, my list of folks I’d like to meet shrinks by one.
May we who remain, especially those of us called to rescue the perishing, be inspired by the life of this one who embraced a cause that was not his own, and laid aside his own ambitions on the chance that he might make a difference.
May his memory forever warm and inspire those hearts whose lives are safe harbors for the children of this world.