Monday, 8 October 2012

Brilliant People IV: Sir Nicholas Winton/Lakshmi Sahgal

There is a saying, oft repeated, in British circles, that “the good die young”. It’s meant to comfort you when a loved dies prematurely. It’s not to say that longevity is a sign of evil, just compare Heydrich to Wiesenthal for example. Two fine examples of long lived greatness come to our attention today, and both made their mark in a way on that most tumultuous of events, World War Two.

Sir Nicholas Winton 

Now, when I do something good, I tend to want praise. Mandy even has a stock “yes, dear” all ready for the most basic of achievements, like not burning the dinner. I think that’s human nature, with success comes recognition of success or achievement. It’s hard to blame people who do genuinely great deeds if they start bragging about those deeds.

This is where Nicholas Winton doesn’t come into the picture. For his good deed basically makes almost all other good deeds pale into consideration, and his response was to not mention it to anyone for fifty years, until it was discovered by others.

Now let’s travel to Christmas 1938 in our minds. It can be snowing if you like. It won't look as you recall your home town – the major cities and towns were all heavily built up over the course of the century, and naturally, a fair bit of rebuilding had to be done due to a slight incident during the early 1940s. A young Londoner of German-Jewish origin, who got a degree working part time at Stowe, and who until recently worked in a Berlin bank, is planning to travel to Switzerland for a skiing holiday. I wouldn’t blame him; he’s 29, its one of the few countries in Europe not on the brink of chaos, good trip if you can get it. If Winton had carried on his holiday as planned, we’d know him today as a 103 year old Briton, and little else.

Instead he travelled onto Czechoslovakia. Now, people probably know their history of the Czechs in 1938. The Munich Agreement, which left the defence of the Czechs resting on nothing more but Hitler’s smile. More can be said about appeasement, chess gambits and consequences of those in other places, however. Basically, Christmas 1938 Czechoslovakia stood on the brink of Nazi occupation, whilst the Chamberlain dolls sold out back in London. Involving himself with the British team working in Prague to help refugees, Winton noticed one issue off the bat.

“'The commission was dealing with the elderly and vulnerable and people in the camps kept telling me that nobody was doing anything for the children.”

Feeling something had to be done quickly about this, he set up an office. In the dining room of a nearby hotel. And so began Operation Kindertransport, an attempt to whisk away nearly 700 Jewish children at risk to safety in London, right under the noses of the Nazis.

As you can imagine, the logistics were no simple thing to overcome. Sir Samuel Hoare as Home Secretary had relaxed the rules on immigration to allow it, and several refugee groups working in the UK teamed together to find homes for every child smuggled over. The British government also leant on the Dutch government to allow the children to pass through the Netherlands, aided also by the sterling work of Truus Wijsmuller-Meijer (1896-1978), the wife of a Dutch banker who was Wintons train aide in Holland.

In the Washington federal archives, they found footage from 1939 of Nicholas Winton holding a child in his hands as the child's parents were leaving him at the railroad station. "It was this shot that was incredible," Minac says. "(Czechoslovakia) was already occupied by the Germans and (Winton) was rescuing these children behind the Gestapo's backs. And suddenly I see him on screen in action in Prague.
(Jewish News article quote, Mitaj Minac was director/writer of All My Loved Ones, a film based on the Kindertransport)

After the first few trains had successfully embarked their cargo in the UK, word spread swiftly, and hundreds of parents besieged Winton to take their children. He left for home, to be able to petition the Home Office to take in more refugees, but also to raise funds, both for the £50 bond fee needed per child, and for travel expenses for the poor kids. It also allowed him to organise the operation more thoroughly. In all, eight trains successfully brought children to the UK, saving the lives of 669 children.

Winton still regrets the ninth train however (which was scheduled to leave Prague on the 3rd September 1939, the day war broke out): 'Within hours of the announcement, the train disappeared. None of the 250 children on board was seen again. We had 250 families waiting at Liverpool Street that day in vain. If the train had been a day earlier, it would have come through. Not a single one of those children was heard of again, which is an awful feeling.'

The man, and all those who helped him in his actions, still saved the lives of 669 children, who would have probably been murdered alongside their families in the Holocaust to come. Some of the children grew up to become quite big in their fields: Alf Dubs for example, the former Labour MP who has served on the Mental Health Trust. Or Arno Allan Penzias, who immigrated to the US, and won the Nobel Physics Prize in 1978 for co-discovering “cosmic microwave background radiation.” They grew up to be not just Nobel Prize winners and MP activists, but writers, philosophers, philanthropists, parents, husbands and wives – the whole gamut of human existence. A vast array of life experience, some benefitting the entire of humanity, some benefitting their communities, all benefitting some, and their continued existence is all down to a small team of workers led by Nicholas Winton.

His Second World War was lived out first as a conscientious objector, then as worker for the Red Cross, then later as a swiftly promoted RAF man. He let his good deeds of 1938-39 pass from memory, and his role might have entirely been forgotten, but for his wife uncovering a box of letters from Czech parents in 1988. Now, when his wife confronted him about this – “Aha, you were actually a hero all along, but forgot to tell me!” or words to that effect – you would forgive our Nicholas for finally conceding his place in history. Not at all – he told her to bin the evidence! Winton is clearly not a man to bask in praise of a superhero’s job well done easily. Luckily for those who like to praise people who were bloody awesome, his wife sort of skipped on the binning the evidence bit, and instead handed it over to the Maxwell’s, who promoted it within an inch of their lives. 

A famous moment occurred on TV soon after, on That’s Life, when as an audience member, Nicholas Winton was shown his scrapbook found by his wife, and then over twenty of the children he had saved fifty years previously rose to applaud him. 

His response since has been to play down his role in the operation, to call praise on the many others who helped, to reflect on those he was unable to save. (He said he was never in Prague station for example, which is disputed by footage in the Washington archive of him actually being there.) He won an MBE for his campaign for elderly assistance homes in 1983, and a wide ranging campaign got him one of the more deserved Knighthoods in recent memory in 2002. Nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, statues dedicated to him in several countries, a small planet named after him. The deserved praise has come thick and fast. 

And yet, Winton refuses to gain an ego, he reflects on those he couldn’t save, or the work of others, and seems to genuinely believe he did what anyone else in his shoes would have done.

Bollocks. The man can undersell himself, but we’re not going to. To save the life of one child is heroic enough. To personally involve yourself, when it is so easy not just to walk away, but to stay in Switzerland, and to save the lives of six hundred and sixty nine children, right from under the noses of one of the most murderous and evil regimes in history...

I’m almost speechless. We’ve not yet invented a word to describe the sheer brilliance of the act. And I’m beginning to sound like a Cracked article, but really... just an awe inspiring person.

It is said that all that is necessary for evil to exist in the world is for good men to do nothing. Well, here we see the inverse. For acting when many others with far more power were too cautious, in a time of great fear and unknowing, Nicholas Winton and all who worked with him are brilliant people.

Lakshmi Sahgal 

Sahgal’s death in July, at the advanced age of 98, gave me the impetus to think about this series. It would be wrong to discount her because of that death, when she had until so recently lived so marvelous a life, so here she remains.

A woman who lived what The Hindu called a “life of struggle” was born in Madras in 1914, to a criminal law lawyer and a social worker who dabbled in the independence movement. She received a medical degree in 1939, and went onto work as a doctor.

Before then, she had already led her first rebellion, as a small child who went against her grandmothers wishes to play with another tribe’s child. Not that she was a shrinking violent in her studies either, already fighting “against caste prejudice often clashing with the ideas held by her contemporaries in school and college.”

“Each stage of the life of this extraordinary Indian represented a new stage of her political evolution – as a young medical student drawn to the freedom struggle; as the leader of the all-woman Rani of Jhansi regiment of the Indian National Army; as a doctor, immediately after Independence, who restarted her medical practice in Kanpur amongst refugees and the most marginalised sections of society; and finally, in post-Independence India, her life as a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), years that saw her in campaigns for political, economic and social justice.”
(The Hindu)

In 1940, she moved to Singapore, and wound up involved in the Indian Independence League, and established a clinic for the poor. After the surrender of Singapore, she spent time helping wounded POWs. At this point, she requested permission to form a women’s regiment of the Indian liberation army, and on acceptance, became ‘Captain Lakshmi’. Arrested by the Brits in 1945, she returned to India in 1947 in a time of great upheaval.

She then became an MP, who became heavily involved in the Bangladesh relief, in the fight for justice for victims of the Bhopal tragedy. She remained a doctor till she was 92.

Her death in July saw tributes from all corners of the globe. She was one of the last living great Indian independence fighters. Not only that, but a great fighter for social justice, women’s rights and peace for most of the 20th Century.

“Freedom comes in three forms. The first is political emancipation from the conqueror, the second is economic [emancipation] and the third is social… India has only achieved the first.” 

In the 1940s, after her return home, she was married, and “won the trust and gratitude of both Hindus and Muslims” with her work with refugees from Pakistan after partition. She formed the All India Democratic Womens Association in 1981, which is a Communist movement designed to fight for womens rights (and education) as well as childs rights and disaster aid. In the anti-Sikh movements after Indira Gandhis assassination, Sahgal was out as an activist on the streets to try and calm tensions, and to prevent violence falling on the Sikh community. Not a woman to become a shrinking violet in old age either, she was arrested aged 84 for her protesting against the Miss World completion in 1996! 

“Captain Lakshmi was the presidential candidate for the Left in 2002, an election that A. P. J. Abdul Kalam would win. She ran a whirlwind campaign across the country, addressing packed public meetings. While frankly admitting that she did not stand a chance of winning, she used her platform to publicly scrutinise a political system that allowed poverty and injustice to grow, and fed new irrational and divisive ideologies.” The Hindu

Even in death, she rebelled against the traditions of her times. She donated her body to medical science instead of the usual cremation. She had never recovered from a massive heart attack on July 19th this year, one day after visiting a hospital for the poor and expressing displeasure with the poverty levels in her country.


Anyone who goes against the social norms of their time for the greater good deserves high acclaim, I think. For a woman to be able to do, and make such a mark on history, is to be more courageous and wonderful still, for the all the prejudice and privilege they have to fight against to achieve it. In all aspects of her life she was ahead of the curve. And yes, she was on the opposition side to the Brits, long ago, but so was Gandhi, and the sheer combined effort of her charity and social work since those days, and her leading light for women in medicine, education and parliament, mean we need to look against tribal “us and them”. Heck, even those guarding her as a POW in 1945 could do that. Lakshmi Sahgal was a wonderful person, whose tireless work made better the lives of countless millions, and the world is sadder for her passing. (And true to form, the Daily Mail trashed her when she died, which bodes well for her efforts.)

Not many people I know of had heard of her, hence why I felt we needed to share some words on a giant of modern history. Quotes and life come from The Hindu and Times of India as do pictures.

Having experienced such heavy works this time, we relax the pace next time, momentarily. First we’ll look at a man who has won not one but two Nobel prizes. But, then we look at a woman who took on an entire government all by herself, risking her life in the process, and winning.