Winton had saved a major part of my generation of Czech Jews.”
Vera’s story is an especially poignant one. She was 10 years old when she left Prague on the fifth train on June 30, 1939. Two of her cousins were on the ninth train that never made it to freedom. Her mother died of typhus two days after liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to which she was sent. Her father was shot in a Nazi death march in December 1944. Vera has no doubt about her own fate had it not been for Nicholas Winton.
Why did he do it? It certainly was not for the plau- dits it might bring him. Indeed, he never told anyone about his achievement for half a century. Not until 1988, when his wife stumbled across a musty box of records and a scrapbook while cleaning their attic, did the public learn of Winton’s story. e scrapbook, a memento put together by his volunteers when the operation shut down, was filled with documents and pictures of Czech children. For all those decades, the children and the families who took them in knew little more than the fact that some kind soul, some guardian angel, had saved their lives.
What compelled this man to take on a challenge ignored by almost everyone else? We sat down with Vera and Nicky at the latter’s home in late July 2006 to ask this very question. One would hardly guess that Nicky is 97; he looks and speaks with the vigor of someone years younger. He greeted us heartily, escort- ing us through his living room and into the backyard where he picked some fresh mulberries for us. He
Th e S to r y o f N i c h o l a s Wi n to n a n d Th e I m p o r t a n ce o f C h a ra c te r
still tends to the gardens around his house.
is is a quiet man. In some ways he is a reminder
of Aristotle’s magnanimous man (from his “Nico- machean Ethics”). Aristotle said the good-souled man is ashamed to receive benefits, and always repays more than he has received. “It is the charac- teristic of the magnanimous man to ask no favor but to be ready to do kindness to others,” he wrote in his Ethics. You hear no boasting from Nicky, no words designed to put any special focus on what he did. In a matter-of-fact fashion, he told us, “Because it was the thing to do and I thought I could help.” One can’t help feeling drawn to a man for whom doing good for its own sake seems to come so naturally.
In “e Power of Good,” a recent International Emmy Award-winning documentary from Czech producer Matej Minac, Nicky says he kept quiet about the rescue mission because “it was such a small part of my life.” Indeed, the operation spanned only eight months, while he was still working at the stock exchange, and it was prior to his marriage. Still, to us, the explanation seemed inadequate. We pressed him on the point.
“When the war started and the transports stopped, I immediately went into the RAF (Royal Air Force), where I stayed for the next five years. When peace came, what was a 35-year-old man to do, traverse the country looking for boys and girls?” At the end of the war, Nicky Winton was busy re-starting his own life. What he did to save so many others just six years earlier was behind him, and over. For all that
Mackinac Center for Public Policy • 5