Un­in­ten­tional he­roes

Two ex­tra­or­di­nary men qui­etly worked to lift oth­ers to free­dom in the face of evil

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - ruth­mar­cus@wash­post.com

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.

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