Don’t be a bystander

Winton12_098eLast week I co-hosted a big event at the new Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie (see its website here ).  Skokie – a suburb of Chicago – has a big Jewish community, with many holocaust survivors and their descendents.  It became briefly famous in the late 70’s for its (ultimately successful) resistance to a proposed neo-nazi march through the town;  and it was the sense of community and activism forged by resistance to the march which led, ultimately, to the founding of the museum and education center here, opened earlier this year by Bill Clinton.  

I was shown round by Rick Hirschhaut, the museum’s director (pictured here with me).  I was profoundly impressed, by both the man and the place;  and particularly, I think, by it’s mission.  In personalising the experience of the holocaust, using lots of individual testimony, it preserves the legacy of the time and honours the memory of those who were murdered more effectively than other sites I’ve seen.  But its real mission seems more to be about combating prejudice and indifference (including teaching kids to think about difference, and  not to be bystanders to bullying);   and about genocidal campaigns in more modern times.  And despite all that, it manages to be an uplifting – if thought-provoking – place to visit. 

200905 Winton Power of GoodThe reason for the event, co-hosted with the Czech Consulate, was the showing of a film “The Power of Good” about Sir Nicholas Winton, who arranged for the evacuation of nearly 700 Jewish children from nazi-occupied Prague just before the outbreak of World War II.  The film tells the story of that part of his life;  and also features a number of his ‘children’, their memories, and of course their current lives … which you can be sure wouldn’t have happened if Nicholas Winton hadn’t intervened (almost without exception all of the relatives of the children rescued by Winton – those who stayed behind in Prague – were transported and killed in the concentration camps).  The most amazing thing about this remarkable man is that he didn’t tell anyone what he’d done just before the war.  The war started;  he came back to Britain and joined the Royal Air Force;  he got married after the war, and got on with his life. It was only decades later, when his wife stumbled upon a scrapbook in the family attic, that the story began to emerge. He was knighted in 2003;  and recognised by the US Congress.  He turned 100 last week;  and still seems slightly puzzled by all the fuss about what clearly seems – to him – a completely obvious and natural thing to do in the circumstances in which he found himself in the late 1930’s …

At the screening of the film (which – if you ever get the chance to see it – is great;  and makes you laugh often, as well as feel tearful) I was sitting between two of his ‘children’;  elderly ladies now, but both very young when their desperate families sent them away on Winton’s Kindertransport to Britain, not knowing if they’d ever see each other again (they didn’t, of course).  Can you imagine what that’s like?  For either party?  Whether you’re the parent putting your child on a train;  or the surviving child, years later, to know that your parents and siblings, if they were lucky, died of suffocation on a cattle-truck.  And if they were unlucky …

And it takes me back to the thing I partcularly admire about the Museum’s mission to raise awareness about contemporary genocide … because people – parents, other loved ones – are still being forced to make those sorts of choices today.  But ’24-hour rolling bollocks’ (as one friend accurately described today’s TV news), despite its diet of gore and trauma, doesn’t succeed in bringing that home.  It remains too easy to think that we – you, me – have a hard life.

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