It doesn’t seem the right thing to say that I am happy, this week, to write about someone who has died. But when the person who has passed away at the ripe old age of 106 was one of the heroes of the 20th century, who was directly responsible for the rescuing 700 Czech children from the clutches of the Nazis and bringing them in safety to the UK, it is a privilege be able to use my weekly access to the media to add just a few more sentences to the many obituaries which have been written about Nicholas Winton.
An unassuming hero who didn’t even tell anyone about his wartime exploits until some 50 years later, when the records of the children he saved were found hidden away in the attic of his house. It turns out that the number of “Winton children,” including descendants which include grandchildren and great-grandchildren, now number in the thousands, residing in England, Israel and North America. Since the discovery he has been rightly honored throughout the world and it is unfortunate that, despite a worldwide petition, he was not awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for what was one of the noblest acts of humanitarianism to have taken place during the bestiality of the Nazi conquest of Europe.
I am also happy to write about Winton this week because it is the exact opposite of what I thought I would be writing about. The anti-Semitic, “anti-Jewification” march which was scheduled to take place last weekend, on Shabbat not less, in the heart of the UK’s largest Jewish neighborhood of Golders Green, did not take place. After weeks of discussions and petitions, the Metropolitan Police decided to move it to another part of Central London and arrested its organizer, Joshua Bonehill-Paine, on charges of racial and anti-Semitic incitement.
At the end of the day it turned out to be a major anti-climax, with about 20 hard-core neo-Nazi fascists taking part, outnumbered by a hundred or so Jewish counter-demonstrators.
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It is difficult to know in retrospect whether it would have turned into a major event had it taken place in Golders Green on Shabbat morning, or whether it was blown out of all proportion by the impressive cross-community lobby which came together to stop it.
The UK Jewish community, which has almost as many communal and defense organizations as it does people, displayed a rare cross-community solidarity in coming together under a single united banner to make representations to the authorities and, if necessary, to plan a counter-demonstration – even if it were to take place on Shabbat morning when many of the local Jewish residents would be on their way to or from the local synagogues. The Community Defense Trust, the Board of Deputies, the London Jewish Forum, Orthodox, Reform and secular Jewish groups all managed to get their act together (which is often a lot more difficult than it sounds) in protesting the demonstration.
And while this unity is admirable, it is sad that it always takes the threat of anti-Semitism to bring the diverse Jewish groups together to fight their common enemy, when if they were to do this on so many other issues it would be of immense benefit to the community as a whole. It would make a culturally diverse and rich community even greater still.
At one point the desire to counter- demonstrate was being compared by some to the events which took place in the Jewish East End of London prior to World War II when the Fascist movement, led by Oswald Moseley, announced its intention to march through the area. At that time, the Jewish community and the Communist movement joined forces to prevent the march from moving through the neighborhood.
Tens of thousands lined the streets and physically prevented the Fascists from marching, under the slogan “They shall not Pass.”
That yesterday’s demonstration fizzled out to a pathetic group of 20 deviant neo-Nazis being herded into a street corner by police should not delude anyone into believing the voices of crude anti-Semitism aren’t just below the surface; the community needs to remain on alert to ensure that they are not allowed to raise their voices again in the coming year. The UK remains a safe and comfortable place for its Jewish community, but that does not allow for complacency.
As the opposition to the Golders Green demonstration grew, so too did local communities come together. Although the major representations were made on behalf of the Jewish community, the local Christian, Muslim and other ethnic communities joined forces in opposing the demonstration and announcing their intention to join the counter-demonstration, should there be one. This would not have happened had the demonstration been described as being in opposition to Israel, regardless of what we think about the connection between criticism of Israel and the wider issue of growing anti-Semitism throughout the Western world.
There could be no greater contrast than being able to replace a column about a potential violent anti-Jewish demonstration with one about the nobility and heroism of Nicholas Winton. Instead of having to focus on the evils of the small group of British fascists and racists, Winton’s death has enabled me to switch the focus to the nobility of an individual who stood up for humanity and was prepared to risk a great deal (although he claims otherwise) to ensure that evil would be defeated – and then kept quiet about for much of his life because he simply didn’t believe that what he did was anything beyond what any civilized person should do under such circumstances.
It is somewhat ironic that when Winton was being considered for induction to the list of Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem, he revealed that he had actually been born Jewish and that his parents, when moving from Germany to the UK at the beginning of the 20th century, had undergone conversion, baptized him and changed their name from Vertheim to Winton. As such, he claimed, he was not eligible to be considered a Righteous Gentile.
It is not clear to what extent he was aware of this throughout this life, or whether he discovered it at a much later stage, but clearly what he did in the 1930s was done out of basic humanitarianism, without any recourse to his own ethnic and religious background. He always described himself as an agnostic.
I twice had the privilege in recent years of hearing Winton speak and answer questions, when he was almost 100 years old but still completely lucid and cogent.
His unassuming, almost shy nature, his backing away from the limelight which afforded him following the discovery of his secret, made him, in my eyes, an even greater personality than many of the other heroes we often hear about, and who are only too willing to tell of their role in great events.
As his daughter says about the biography she wrote about her father, If It’s Not Impossible, “My father’s wish for his biography is that it should not promote hero worship but that it might inspire people to recognize that they too can act ethically in the world and make a positive difference to the lives of others, whether it be international crises or nearer to home, in their own community.”
And in Winton’s own words: “I came to believe through my life that what is important is that we live by the common ethics of all religions – kindness, decency, love, respect and honor for others – and not worry about the aspects within religion that divide us.”
From the British royal family to the prime minister to the chief rabbi of the UK, and to the thousands of Winton children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, tributes have come pouring in. When we look around the world today, we witness the atrocities being carried out on a daily basis both in the Middle East and elsewhere, more often than not in the name of a fundamentalist religious ideology which has no place in the contemporary world, it takes a relatively small event, the passing of one individual, to remind us of those who continue to provide the light at the end of the tunnel.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.