Sunday, July 5, 2015

Save One Life, Save the World

“Save One Life, Save the World” is a phrase in the Talmud (a Jewish book of law), and this phrase is inscribed on a ring worn by Sir Nicholas Winton (born Nicholas Wertheim), who passed away on July 1, 2015 at the age of 106. The ring was given to him by some of the Jewish refugees he rescued from Czechoslovakia when they were children during the Holocaust.

In 1938, at the age of 29, Winton worked in London as a stockbroker. He was about to go on a skiing vacation when a friend called him from Prague to ask him to travel to Prague instead to help rescue Jews endangered when the Germans annexed western Czechoslovakia. Winton went to Prague to assist his friend, and between March and August of 1939 he arranged for the transport of a total of 669 children to safety in foster homes in England. He raised a large sum of money to foot the bill for his efforts, found the foster families (carefully matching children with appropriate foster parents), and arranged for the travel of the children. He was prepared to transport 250 children by train on September 1, 1939, but on that day Hitler invaded Poland and closed all German-controlled borders. The 250 children perished and Sir Winton’s efforts came to an end. But by that time he had saved 669. He personally saved the lives of 669 people. He was the one who rescued 669 children from unspeakable horror.

Winton told no one of his wartime effort. It came to light many years later when his wife discovered his scrapbook and records in a box in the attic and revealed what her husband had done. He was then recognized and honored by the British and Czech governments. Clearly, what mattered to Winton was not the recognition, but the knowledge that he had saved those lives. What a magnificent knowledge for him to carry within him for his life. I think it must have given him a tremendous sense of peace to know that he had done such a good thing, a thing that mattered. But maybe this was not so; maybe he was haunted by the children he could not save, maybe he remained troubled by that 250 who never arrived. I like to imagine that he lived to be 106 because at his core he held the calming and satisfying knowledge that he had saved 669 lives.

When I read about what this man did in the world, what other people did and are doing, I feel as though I have done nothing to make a difference in the lives of others. Have the small things that I have done grown beyond me and made a difference of which I am not cognizant? Did any of the projects and programs for which I secured funding as a grant writer provide services that saved a person’s life? That saved a child? As I sit in my cozy office where my life is not in danger, I like to think that this is so. But perhaps it is nothing more than my little fantasy to ease my conscience.
It is true that the grand gesture is not the only avenue to being of use, that one small good deed can take on a larger life in the world. Look at the story about Hilde Back. Hilde was a German woman living in Sweden who participated in an international sponsorship program in the 1970s. She paid to sponsor one Kenyan child from a poor family so that he could receive an education. The child she sponsored was Chris Mburu, who went on to receive degrees from the University of Nairobi and Harvard Law School. In gratitude for the funds he received from Hilde to complete his secondary school education, he founded the Hilde Back Education Fund (HBEF). Through this organization, children in Kenya who could otherwise not pay to go to school receive funds to pay for their education through sponsors, much as Mburu received his education through Hilde’s generosity. HBO produced a documentary film entitled A Small Act about Mburu’s search to find his benefactor and how he finally tracked her down and met her. Mburu is an internationally recognized human rights advocate and the HBEF has made it possible for many Kenyan children to go to school. Hilde Back wound up living in Sweden after she fled Nazi Germany during the war because she was Jewish. Let the circle be unbroken.

As I ponder the contributions of Sir Winton and Hilde Back, the Malala Fund comes to mind. It was started by Pakistani Malala Yousafzai and her father, Ziauddin, to raise funds to support education for girls in six countries in crisis where girls have little resources, little power, and limited access to education. For instance, the Malala Fund is paying for the education of girls in Nigeria who escaped Boko Haram. What an extraordinary amount of good Malala has put forth in the world in the short time she has been on the planet. She started the Malala Fund before she won the Nobel Peace Prize, back when she was 15 years old. Witness what she has accomplished in her few years of life. She was already speaking out and making a difference before the Taliban shot her. She gave a much-publicized speech entitled “How Dare the Taliban Take Away My Basic Right to Education?” when she was only 11 years old. The following year she blogged for the BBC about what life was like for her under the Taliban. She was targeted because she was so outspoken.

I love it that the name of the film about Hilde and Mburu is A Small Act. Something small can become something big can become something great. A small act can save a life. Sometimes it is a courageous act, as in Sir Winton’s case, and at other times it is something safer, as in Hilde’s simple act of generosity. A child grows up and becomes an adult who acts in the world. Placing knowledge in the hands of children seeds the future. I have ever believed that our most important job as parents and as communities is to raise our children well. When I worked at Head Start in the 1990s, there was a quote from teacher Forest E. Witcraft on the cover of our employee handbook that went like this:  “A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or car I drove; but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.”

Sir Nicholas Winton

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