An old man went to Prague this week. He had spent much of his life keeping quiet about his deeds. They spoke for themselves. Now he said, “In a way perhaps I shouldn’t have lived so long to give everybody the opportunity to exaggerate everything in the way they are doing today.”
At the age of 105, Sir Nicholas Winton is still inclined toward self-effacement. He did what any normal human being would, only at a time when most of Europe had gone mad. A London stockbroker, born into a family of German Jewish immigrants who had changed their name from Wertheim and converted to Christianity, he rescued 669 children, most of them Jews, from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939. They came to Britain in eight transports. The ninth was canceled when Hitler invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. The 250 children destined for it journeyed instead into the inferno of the Holocaust.
Winton, through family connections, knew enough of the Third Reich to see the naïveté of British officialdom still inclined to dismiss Hitler as a buffoon and talk of another war as fanciful. He raised money; he procured visas; he found foster families. His day job was at the Stock Exchange. The rest of his time he devoted to saving the doomed. There were enough bystanders. He wanted to help. Now he has outlived many of those he saved and long enough to know that thousands of their descendants owe their lives to him.
Back in Prague, 75 years on, Winton received the Order of the White Lion, the highest honor of the Czech Republic. The Czech Air Force sent a plane. He was serenaded at Prague Castle, in the presence of a handful of his octogenarian “children.” The only problem, he said, was that countries refused to accept unaccompanied children; only England would. One hundred years, he said, is “a heck of a long time.” The things he said were understated. At 105, one does not change one’s manner.
Only in 1988 did Winton’s wartime work begin to be known. His wife found a scrapbook chronicling his deeds. He appeared on a BBC television show whose host, Esther Rantzen, asked those in the audience who owed their lives to him to stand. Many did. Honors accrued. Now there are statues of him in London and Prague. “I didn’t really keep it secret,” he once said. “I just didn’t talk about it.”
Such discretion is riveting to our exhibitionist age. To live today is to self-promote or perish. Social media tugs the private into the public sphere with an almost irresistible force. Be followed, be friended — or be forgotten. This imperative creates a great deal of tension and unhappiness. Most people, much of the time, have a need to be quiet and still, and feel disinclined to raise their voice. Yet they sense that if they do not, they risk being seen as losers. Device anxiety, that restless tug to the little screen, is a reflection of a spreading inability to live without 140-character public affirmation. When the device is dead, so are you.
What gets forgotten, in the cacophony, is how new this state of affairs is. Winton’s disinclination to talk was not unusual. Silence was the reflex of the postwar generation. What was done was done because it was the right thing to do and therefore unworthy of note. Certainly among Jews silence was the norm. Survivors scarcely spoke of their torment. They did not tell their children. They repressed their memories. Perhaps discretion seemed the safer course; certainly it seemed the more dignified. Perhaps the very trauma brought wordlessness. The Cold War was not conducive to truth-telling. Anguish was better suffered in silence than passed along (although of course it filtered to the next generation anyway.)
But there was something else, something really unsayable. Survival itself was somehow shameful, unbearable. By what right, after all, had one lived when those 250 children had not? Menachem Begin, the former Israeli prime minister whose parents and brother were killed by the Nazis, put this sentiment well: “Against the eyes of every son of the nation appear and reappear the carriages of death. ... The Black Nights when the sound of an infernal screeching of wheels and the sighs of the condemned press in from afar and interrupt one’s slumber; to remind one of what happened to mother, father, brothers, to a son, a daughter, a People. In these inescapable moments every Jew in the country feels unwell because he is well. He asks himself: Is there not something treasonous in his existence.”
Winton’s anonymity, for decades after the war, was of course also the result of the silence or reserve of the hundreds he had saved. How strange that seems today, when we must emote about everything.
The deed speaks — and occasionally someone lives long enough to know in what degree.