September 1, 1939. The day has peculiar resonances if you are Polish, for reasons obvious in the 1939 headline above. The anniversary of the Nazi blitzkrieg almost slipped by me, were it not for my Polish friend Artur Sebastian Rosman‘s interesting and controversial post on the subject over at his blog, Cosmos the in Lost, in which the Czeslaw Milosz scholar discusses Timothy Snyder‘s internationally acclaimed Bloodlands, which we’ve discussed before here and here and here and here. While Artur acknowledges that the Holocaust has become almost a “metaphysical measuring stick of humanity’s capacity for radical evil,” he reminds us that Hitler had even bigger plans in mind:
…Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin puts the Holocaust within its Central European context. What’s frequently lost is how Snyder’s international bestseller suggests the Holocaust is not some ahistorical transcendent metaphysical essence, but rather a contingent historical event. First of all, Snyder’s book puts the Holocaust within the context of the genocides perpetrated against other populations stuck between Germany and the Soviet Union. Second, Bloodlands gives a thorough account of the Generalplan Ost: the secret German plan to exterminate the Slavs so that Germans could repopulate their lands and take advantage of the Ukrainian breadbasket.
The extermination of the Slavs was Germany’s main plan. What they did not anticipate was the strength of the Soviet resistance and how the herding of Jewish populations would cause the Nazis logistical problems. The rapid accumulation of large populations in ghettos led the Germans to send them to preexisting concentration camps. These camps were first used to systematically kill Catholic clergy, Polish resistance fighters, and Communists.
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
I’ve thought a lot of the last two lines of this excerpt in recent days – there’s plenty in the international news to remind us. What remedy? What remedy? How about the man who insisted that goodness properly understood is not passive, but active – that the world requires individuals who not only refrain from harming others, but energetically seek out those in need of help? Sir Nicholas Winton saved 669 Czech children from certain death in the Holocaust – about 6,000 people are alive today because of his efforts. He turned 105 years old last May, with an international celebration at London’s Czech Embassy; The Guardian wrote about that event here. “I am always surprised every time I come here to see all kinds of people who have come really very great distances to say hello,” Winton said. “As far as I am concerned, it is only Anno Domini that I am fighting – I am not ill, I am just old and doddery.”
His daughter has just published a book about her father – The Guardian wrote about that over the summer too, here. “Like her father, Barbara Winton is not sentimental; she lets the story tell itself,” writes Emma Howard. “Both father and daughter resist hero worship. The book’s title is a nod to his often-repeated motto: ‘If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it.’” An excerpt that tells the story:
“Nearly 6,000 people in the world today are alive because Winton responded to a phone call from Prague in December 1938. The call was from his friend Martin Blake, who was engaged in helping Jewish refugees and was asking for Winton’s assistance. On arrival in Prague, Winton immediately took action, setting up an office in his hotel in Wenceslas Square. He persuaded the German authorities to let a number of Jewish children leave, and identified British foster families who would open their homes to them. (In November 1938, shortly after Kristallnacht, parliament approved a measure that would allow the entry into Britain of refugees younger than 17, if they had a place to stay and provided that £50 was deposited to pay for their eventual return to their own country.) He then organised eight evacuations on the Czech Kindertransport train from Prague to London’s Liverpool Street station. He spent only three weeks in Prague – the maximum length of time he could get off from his job as a stockbroker in the City – though he worked in the evenings during the following eight months to complete the mission.
“For half a century, Winton knew nothing of the nearly 700 people who now call themselves ‘Nicky’s children’. He did not seek them out after the war and rarely spoke of the episode. But the details were waiting to be found – in a scrapbook crammed with documents, photographs and a list of every child he saved. It was not until the BBC got hold of the scrapbook in 1988 that the story came to light. Invited by Esther Rantzen to sit in the audience of her show That’s Life!, Winton was overwhelmed when she announced live on air that the people in the audience around him were the children he had saved.”
Here’s how he found out he’d become a hero. It’s an awwwww video, for a little hope on a grim anniversary: