Sir Nicholas Winton and a Different Look at Charity

“Nicholas Winton in Prague” by cs:User:Li-sung – Self-photographed. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After 106 years with us, Sir Nicholas Winton passed away yesterday with his daughter, Barbara, and two of his grandchildren by his bedside.  What started off as a conventional stockbroker’s life turned into extraordinary with a plea for help in the form of a phone call from a friend in Prague.  Sir Nicholas cancelled his skiing holiday and organized a team to ultimately get 669 Jewish children out of Prague before the Nazis slammed the borders shut after their invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.  Unfortunately, there was a seventh train attempting to leave that day, and almost all those children died in the concentration camps.

What was just as amazing was that he kept his story to himself and carried on with his life being a pillar of his community in Maidenhead.  Though he didn’t keep his story a secret from anyone, it wasn’t until his wife found the scrapbook with the children’s pictures and information in the 1980s that his story came to light to the general public.  Many people marveling at this sort of humility and modesty and cannot understand how someone can be this way.  I can.  Please let me explain the possibility why.

Sir Nicholas Winton’s parents converted were Jewish but converted to Christianity.  However, I would not be surprised if the value of tzedakah was passed on to the Winton children.  Tzedakah means justice, righteousness, or fairness, and that is the Jewish approach to charity.  Charity is not considered an altruistic and magnanimous act.  Charity, whether through giving of money or through acts of service , is something you have to do.  It is not something that should be lauded.  It is not something that deserves accolades.  People need help, and you give it.  It is that simple.  If he were instilled with those sorts of values, his behavior would have made sense, but since I did not know the man, I can only speculate.

I can urge you to read more of his story in this New York Times obituary and appreciate what he contributed to humanity.  It tells his tale more eloquently than I can.

Rest well, Sir Nicholas.  You deserve every moment of peace.

Edited to correct the NY Times obituary.  Upon reading the obituaries in the British press, Sir Nicholas Winton did not hide his story from others, including his wife, but he did keep it understated.  She knew about the evacuations, and the family knew about the scrapbook’s existence before the scrapbook was discovered.  Winton’s late wife Grete gave the scrapbook to Elisabeth Maxwell, a Holocaust researcher and the wife of newspaper mogul Robert Maxwell, and the publicity snowballed from there.