An Elegy for Sir Nicholas Winton

One of the words that I have seriously thought about having tattooed onto my left arm, in white ink, is Anavah.  It is Hebrew for “humble.”  A friend once told me that I was the most humble person she had ever met.  I wish she hadn’t because I really don’t feel humble.  Even writing this blog keeps me from feeling humble because I fret that this is nothing more than “Hey!  Look at me and love me for my writing!!!”

This week, I heard about the death of a man whom I have never met but wish I had.  Sir Nicholas Winton (link is within his name which will include an inspiring and amazing video) helped 669 Jewish children escape from Nazi Europe (specifically Czechoslovakia).  From what I have gleaned, he orchestrated the transportation of children using eight trains to get them into England where they would be guaranteed safety.  I keep on reading that eight of the trains were successful in helping the children escape certain death, but NPR said that one train (maybe there were nine?) didn’t complete the journey.

Sir Nicholas Winton is the epitome of Anavah.  He kept his mouth shut for fifty years.  From NPR, I learned that his wife figured out his actions when she found a notebook/scrapbook/photo album that had lists of the children’s names and photographs.

He didn’t tell anyone.  He didn’t run around with a banner that said “Look at me and love me for my heroics.”  He went about his life.

I frequently engage in the “what would I do” existential exercise when I hear about people whose bravery is life-altering.  And I seriously wonder…”what would I do” if it came down to standing up like Sir Winton.  Before I started this blog post, I did some research.  About twenty years ago, I was watching television and a news program (I think it was 60 Minutes) did a piece about Mengele’s journals and the twins on whom he experimented.  At the top was one or two sets of twins who had my last name.

Not the last name that is all over this website.  My maiden name that I am keeping quiet so that I may protect my family’s privacy (not because I am afraid that people are stupid and possibly anti-Semitic.  Bring on your hate.  But because I am fiercely protective of the quietness surrounding my house…even as the thunderstorm rumbles over my neighborhood).

Hello Existential crisis of my life.  When I was seven, I walked the gravel paths of Dachau and started learning about the Holocaust.  I have seen the movies, watched the documentaries, read the books.  I have fed a voracious appetite for knowledge because I had to find a way to reconcile my love for Germany against my furious grief for the atrocities committed in this incredible country.  And I still have not found that reconciliation….just an acceptance that, yes, these horrific crimes have happened and nothing I do now will ever change that history.  However, I can be a vehicle for preventing future incidents.  And I will do everything in my power to do so.

Growing up, especially, I had the perfect blond-hair, blue-eyed complexion.  I melted into the German DNA double helix so well that I passed until I opened my mouth.  I could speak with an accent.  But I couldn’t speak the language.  Hello little American girl.

But my maiden name is Jewish.  Cool.  My father’s family emigrated from wherever they used to live back in  the mid 1800’s.  Cool.  They lived in Illinois.  Cool.  End of story.  Cool.

Until I watched 60 Minutes or whatever show I was watching and saw the names of children who wore my last name, children who were victims of grotesque human experimentation.

What would I do?  I don’t have nightmares with my children that often.  God has given me a great merciful gift of sparing me the dreams in which I watch my children die.  My mother’s life has been spent living from one nightmare to the next; I am being very serious.  I think that’s why she has so much terror about everything.  She watches the news and sees horrible things.  She goes to sleep and still lives through horrible things.

I rarely have nightmares with my kids, but when I do, they are generally the same.  I am in Auschwitz and we are about to go into the gas chambers.  I am naked and struggling to find a place for my children to hide.  Lockers..I must hide them in the lockers (sorry…the high school influence on my dreams come into play here).  I know that hiding my children will probably not keep them from death (effect of watching Schindler’s List) but I can only hope that I will not have to watch them die (Sophie’s Choice).

What would I do?  Would I have blended into society, have passed for an Aryan because of my looks and the fact that I was raised and attend a Christian church?  Would I have been sentenced to ride the trains until we breached the gates of death where I would have been sentenced to death because of my name, a heritage that was changed generations before my birth, my children because mothers and children were never separated, or the fact that I am a teacher and ill-used to doing long hours of back-breaking labor?

Would I have stood silent as the atrocities have been committed?

Would I have stood up and fought which would have still landed me in a concentration camp…Dachau…where my future shadow would walk along the gravel paths and learn nothing but still be haunted to the point of obsession?

Would I have been a participant because I hate standing out from the crowd as much as I constantly stand out from the crowd?  Because I would be afraid of the repercussions against my children, my husband, my beloved family?  Because the long arm of the Gestapo is far longer than my tolerance for pain or my ability to hold up and watch my family be tortured?

These questions challenge me.  Until I watch the news and learn about the churches burning in the South.

Until I hear about a man who selflessly gave of himself, who didn’t say anything and just lived because that was the right thing to do.  Because self-aggrandizement merely turns one’s loving actions into a pedestal upon which we can eventually be destroyed by our own arrogance and need for attention.

Sir Nicholas Winton, I honor you.  I honor you and your 669 examples of selfless giving, even though I know that far more people lived because of you.  Parents were forced to give up their children which is a hellish decision.  However, in that moment, you gave those parents a shred of hope.  I might die, but my children will not suffer.

I would suffer for my children.  I would have done that.

Sir Nicholas Winton, you gave of yourself, completely and utterly.  You entered into hostile territory where, should you have been caught, you would have been tortured.  I had a friend whose grandmother worked at helping smuggle Jews out of Nazi Europe.  She was caught.  She had her hip broken five times as the Gestapo worked to get information out of her.  She never spoke.

Much like you never spoke.

The adage that “actions speak louder than words” is so very true for you, sir.  You are a hero, a role model, a champion of the human race.  Sir, I believe in Heaven.  And I truly do believe that God must have been preparing your shoulders for your future wings because you carried the weight of those parents’ hopes for their children’s survival.

Rest well, sir.  Rest well.

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