Change of plans

Heroism that went unnoticed for 50 years, but that might be a little inspiring today. Plus, 7 other things worth your time.

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Nicholas Winton, a 29-year-old British stockbroker, planned a big, fun year-end vacation.

His colleagues in London would mostly visiting be family and celebrating Christmas. Winton, who had Jewish ancestry but had been baptized in the Anglican church, decided to go on a ski trip to Switzerland instead.

However, at the last minute, he had a change of plans.

This whole story takes place in 1938 — Winton was born in 1909 — and so here’s a quick history refresher on what was happening in late 1938 in Europe, and what upended his trip:

  • October 1-10: the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia,

  • October 30: the brutal expulsion of 17,000 Polish Jews from Germany, and

  • November 10: Kristallnacht, in which thousands of German Jews were beaten and arrested, and Nazis destroyed Jewish businesses and synagogues.

Against that, Winton had a friend named Martin Blake, who was working with refugees in Prague, and who asked Winton to skip the ski trip and come there instead.

Firsthand, Winton saw the horrible reality of life under the Nazis firsthand. War now seemed inevitable, and things looked hopeless for thousands. Back in the United Kingdom, a program called Kindertransport allowed Austrian and German Jewish children without parents to settle temporarily in the country—but there was no such program for Czechoslovakian children.

So, Winton basically created one himself.

Starting with almost no resources, headquartered in a hotel room, at a kitchen table, and ultimately out of a Prague storefront, he recruited volunteers, raised money, forged documents, bribed Gestapo agents, and compiled data on 5,000 Czech Jewish children he hoped to get out of the country.

The children's parents gave them up—assuming, accurately in almost all cases, that they'd never see them again.

It was an incredibly difficult logistical task. Working with his mother, Winton raised money and recruited British families to serve as foster parents for the children.

Ultimately, Winton returned to England to coordinate the effort-and amazingly-to continue working at his day job on the stock exchange, since he and his mother were contributing their own money to the Czech children's relief effort.

Starting in March 1939, Winton and his colleagues got eight trainloads of Czech children out of the country, carrying 669 children in all. Another 250 children were aboard the largest train, scheduled to leave Prague and travel through Germany itself to the North Sea on September 1, 1939.

But that was day Germany invaded Poland and World War II began, and the train never made it. All of the children on that train are believed to have died eventually in concentration camps.

With his hopes of continuing the rescue effort dashed, Winton joined the Royal Air Force and served for the rest of the war. Afterward, he lived a fairly normal life.

He married a Danish woman, Grete Gjelstrup, and they had three children. And for five decades, Winton said nothing of what he'd accomplished on the eve of World War II. The world entirely forgot, as well.

In 1988, however, his wife came across a “long-hidden scrapbook-crammed with names, pictures, letters from families, travel documents, and notes crediting his colleagues,” according to the New York Times. She “asked for an explanation. He gave her a general idea, but said he thought the papers had no value and suggested discarding them.”

Instead, Winton's wife gave the scrapbook to an historian. A BBC television program followed, as did other reports and films. Winton was ultimately honored by the Czech, British, American, and Israeli governments. He was knighted in 2003.

Still, he viewed comparisons between himself and people like Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg with “bewilderment and disbelief,” according to a biographer who herself had been one of the rescued children, and who was quoted in the Times.

Winton died at age 106 in 2015. I suspect my readers in the UK will already know his name, but he’ll be name for many others.

Besides the fact that it’s just a great story, I’m sharing it for timely inspiration. I don’t know what’s going to happen with Thanksgiving and Christmas and other end-of-year holidays this year. But things will be different.

The link I shared yesterday about the CDC recommending “outside gatherings” and “no loud music,” to say nothing of no traveling for Thanksgiving, has gone a bit viral.

Anyway, I doubt many of us will have the chance to do something as world-historic and far-reaching as what Winton wound up doing instead of his ski trip in 1938. But if some of us look hard enough, we might find a way to turn disappointment into opportunity.


7 other things worth your time

  • President-elect Joe Biden announced his chief of staff: Ron Klain, 59, who was previously his chief of staff as vice president. It also probably did not hurt his chances that on January 30, he published an article entitled, “Coronavirus Is Coming—And Trump Isn’t Ready.” (Fox News, The Atlantic)

  • I don’t want to bog this down with politics every day, even though I feel strongly. So, just a couple of links: a sort of update on the state of President Trump’s attempts to dispute the election, and the “long-shot scenario” his most aggressive advisors recommend (basically convincing GOP-led state legislatures to replace their electors with pro-Trump slates, regardless of the vote). Karl Rove is among Republicans now saying Biden’s win “won’t be overturned,” though. (The Washington Post, Axios, WSJ)

  • How’s Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones spending the pandemic? Gardening. “I spent the whole summer actually admiring the garden and also doing a bit of gardening myself; watering the veggies and the stuff. I got into a more probably normal way of life, which is un-normal.” (AP)

  • Latest workplace dilemmas and drama related to Covid: Workers who say they’re trying to decide whether to be honest at work when they test positive; also some working parents say they’re being discriminated against for having to take care of children at home. (CBS Local, Bloomberg)

  • Second Gentleman: Doug Emhoff, the 56-year-old husband of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, will leave his private law practice by Inauguration Day to focus on his role at the White House. (AP)

  • A group of 15 Asia-Pacific nations, led by China and encompassing nearly a third of the world’s gross domestic product, “aim to clinch the world’s largest free-trade agreement this weekend.” (Bloomberg)

  • This just kind of melted my heart: the prime minister of Canada using his Twitter account to help in the nationwide search for a stem cell donor who might be able to help save a three-month-old baby’s wife. I’m not aware of any connection he has to the family, except that they live in Canada. Can you imagine if politicians used social media for things like this instead of … well, you know.

I used a creative commons photo today. Also, I wrote about Winton once before at Inc.com. f you liked this post, and you’re not yet a subscriber, what are you waiting for? Please sign up for the daily Understandably.com email newsletter, with thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers. You can also just send an email to signup@understandably.com. 

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