Two extraordinary men quietly worked to lift others to freedom in the face of evil
Heroism tends to be understood as a matter of public display — the bystander racing into a burning building, the soldier braving fire to rescue a comrade. But there is heroism, as well, of a quieter, more self-effacing variety — the unintentional hero, quiet but determined, who acts in the vacuum of others’ complacency. This is a column about two such individuals. The first, Nicholas Winton, died Wednesday at age 106. As a 29-year-old stockbroker in London, Winton was planning to go skiing in Switzerland in December 1938. Instead, he went to Prague to help refugees in the just-annexed Sudetenland. There, he confronted an obvious question that lacked an answer: “Who’s helping the children?”
So Winton appointed himself. He established— invented, actually — a “Children’s Section” of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, named himself honorary secretary, and set to work meeting parents frantic to ship their children to safety, even at the risk of never seeing them again.
Winton cajoled British bureaucrats, forged travel documents, paid bribes to the Gestapo, and found British families willing to take in the Jewish children. In the end, he managed to send eight trainloads of children, 669 in total, from Prague bound for London. A ninth, with 250 children on board, was stopped in Prague on Sept. 3, 1939, the day Britain declared war on Germany. None of those children was seen again.
Amazingly, Winton never mentioned his work—“just nine months in a very long life,” he said— to anyone. Including his wife, Grete, who stumbled on her husband’s secret when she found an old scrapbook in the attic more than four decades later and insisted that the story be told.
“Why did I do it?” Winton told the New York Times in 2001. “Why do people do different things? Some people revel in taking risks, and some go through life taking no risks at all.”
It was not simply willingness to take risks but unwillingness to give up. “I work on the motto that if something’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it,” Winton told CBS’s “60Minutes.”
The second hero of this column may never forgive me for audaciously linking him with the first. He is David Bradley, the owner of the media company that publishes the Atlantic, and— full disclosure— both a friend and a benefactor: I am fortunate to be among a group of journalists whom Bradley has welcomed to his home for off-the-record dinners with public figures.
This week’s issue of the New Yorker magazine features a mesmerizing account by Lawrence Wright of Bradley’s behind-the-scenes efforts to help free Americans kidnapped in Syria. Tragically, Bradley’s efforts were less successful than Winton’s; four of the five hostages he sought to save were eventually killed.
Yet there are telling parallels between the two endeavors. As with Winton, Bradley’s involvement was both accidental and self-impelled. As with Winton, it illustrates the power of individual perseverance in the face not only of evil, but of bureaucratic obstacles and indifference.
Bradley’s effort began earlier, in 2011, before the wave of kidnappings, when freelancer Clare Gillis, who had contributed to the Atlantic’s Web site, was captured in Libya along with two other reporters.
The abduction was not obviously Bradley’s problem — after all, Gillis wasn’t his employee — but the U.S. government was not involved in negotiating the journalists’ return. So Bradley, who made his fortune as a management consultant, got to work, drawing concentric circles on his office whiteboard to puzzle out who could help secure Gillis’s freedom.
Among the reporters freed with her was James Foley. And when Foley was kidnapped again, in Syria in 2012, Bradley once more volunteered his services in what became an expensive, time-consuming and ultimately heartbreaking endeavor.
Why did he do it? His explanation combines Wintonian determination with corporate cost-benefit analysis. When Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg pressed his boss on why he was pursuing this mission, Wright reports, Bradley answered: “When I wake in the morning, I could study online advertising patterns— or I could try in some way to save the lives of Americans who are held by fanatics. When I looked at the options in front of me, it was obvious what was the best use ofmy time.”
Few of us have Winton’s or Bradley’s capacity for energetic determination; even fewer, their financial resources. But their examples prod us all to ask: How can we achieve that which is not impossible? What is the best use of our time?
Nicholas Winton, in an undated family photograph, with one of the children he rescued during theHolocaust.
Journalist James Foley in Aleppo, Syria, in 2012.