I watched the documentary Nicky’s Family last night and I’m still having a hard time processing what I saw.
To summarize, Nicholas Winton was a successful stock broker who planned to take a vacation to the Swiss Alps with a friend in 1938. The friend decided to go to Prague instead. The British and the French had just appeased the Nazis by allowing the areas of Czechoslovakia containing a sizable German minority to rejoin Germany.
This displaced many Czech people who also called that area home. With a first-hand insight into Nazi brutality, these displaced people knew this wouldn’t be enough and that further war was on the horizon.
When Winton got to Prague, he saw the horrid conditions the refugees were living, or surviving in. He couldn’t do much for the adults and for the huge population affected, but there was nothing set up to help the kids.
On his own, he organized “kindertransports” to help the kids of these refugees, many Jewish though not all, to safer countries. He wrote letters around the globe hoping to find new homes for the kids. He even wrote a letter directly to American president Roosevelt, though an underling from the American Embassy in London wrote back denying his request.
In the end, it was his own country primarily, and Sweden secondarily, who accepted the children. He was a businessman at heart, so he kind of set up a commercial operation by necessity to maximize the amount of kids he could save.
He required portrait pictures of all the kids and then used these to place ads in newspapers and via adoption agencies for prospective parents to “shop” for children. In London he could screen the families himself. Outside of London he had associates screen the families to make sure the kids were getting placed in safe homes.
To get the kids out of Czechoslovakia he had to put them on a train that passed through Germany on to The Netherlands. From the Netherlands they took a boat to England and then a train to London. It was a long, arduous process and for the kids it was their first time away from their families. Most were very young and had no idea what was going on.
I believe seven such transports went off without a hitch as described above. The eighth transport was the biggest, 250 children, and was to occur on September 1, 1939. Sadly, that was the day Germany invaded Poland and started World War Two. The transport was canceled.
It wasn’t clear, but it seemed like Nicholas had to give up his career to focus on this. Nevertheless, once war broke out he joined the British RAF (Royal Air Force) since he was a trained pilot.
After the war he dedicated much of his time to charity work and personally spent 4 million pounds to build a nursing home for the elderly. He lost track of all the kids during the war and never knew what happened to any of them.
Fifty years later, in 1988, his wife discovered the bookkeeping from the kindertransports in the attic. He had never told her, nor anyone about the amazing work he did. It’s almost hard to imagine, isn’t it? Today people take to Facebook solicit “likes” and praise for doing the most mundane and meaningless things. He saved 669 children from certain death and didn’t tell anyone.
I realize I’ve given away too much of the story. And I held together pretty well throughout the documentary. But in 1988, when his wife discovered these documents, she took them to a historian to have her review them. And she realized that most of the kids survived, stayed in the UK, and would love nothing more than to know who saved them during the war. After the war, most of the kids found out their families perished in concentration camps and didn’t know how or why they were saved.
In 1988 the BBC lured Nicholas to the taping of a program in a large auditorium. He didn’t know why he was invited, but attended nevertheless. Soon the story started to be revealed. The host of the event asked a simple question:
How many of you are alive today because of Nicholas Winton?
Everyone in the audience stood up besides Nicholas and his wife. They were seated in the front row, so he stood up and turned around and saw so many people standing up. He lost it. So did I.
I wondered how after the war he could continue living without checking up on what happened to the kids. Maybe war changes you and makes you want to forget the past? Maybe he got married, started a family, and had his hands full? Maybe he just felt like he was doing what anyone else would have done in his shoes? If you help an old lady get up after slipping on some ice, you don’t check to see what happened to her a few years later. You just be a kind human being and help her in a moment of need and continue living your life. You wouldn’t consider yourself a hero or anything special by helping her, and I guess Nicholas felt the same way.
In the 20+ years since discovering how they were rescued, many of “Nicky’s Kids” dedicated themselves to social work. They feel like they have a debt that needs to be repaid. Whether volunteering in a hospital, changing careers from engineering ballistic missiles to building homes for the mentally handicapped, serving food in soup kitchens, etc.
At the end of the documentary, one of the survivors said “Nicholas Winton is like a small stone thrown into a small lake and the ripples and the waves from that stone are getting wider, and winder, and wider, and the winder it gets the more good that is being done in the world.”
Many of the children and grandchildren from the survivors have gone on to do amazing social work as well, from sending needed supplies to poor children in Ecuador, to starting the first organization to help HIV positive kids in Cambodia safely treating over 5000 children, and countless other amazing acts of positivity.
In total, the 103-year-old has about 6000 family members.
Again I don’t think Nicholas would ever consider what he did anything other than what was necessary and what anyone else would have done. But I share this story for so many reasons.
Gandhi says “If you want to find yourself, get lost in the service of others.” This is a good example, how one year of Nicholas’s life has produced incalculable positivity and good for the world ever since.
When you can combine doing something you love and are passionate about, the goal of your Happiness Plunge in other words, with helping others, these are the kinds of results you can achieve. Negativity is far more contagious than positivity. It’s a sad fact of life. Positivity has an extra hurdle to cross in its path contagiousness – the ability to inspire. When you can inspire others, the sky is the limit in terms of what you can achieve.
And I think it teaches humbleness. No explanation necessary there.
About Adam Pervez
In mid-2011 I left my cushy corporate job and took the plunge into a life incorporating my passions of traveling, writing, volunteering, learning, educating, and telling stories. I study what happiness means to others, offer what I can from my engineering/MBA background as a volunteer, and try to leave each place better than how I found it. Read more.