No Time To Listen?

Joshua Bell playing at L’Enfant Plaza Metro, 2007. (Photo: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Joshua Bell playing at L’Enfant Plaza Metro, 2007. (Photo: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The setting was an arcade outside the metro station in Washington, DC. on a cold January morning. A young man positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt, and topped by a Washington National’s baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play. He played six classical pieces for about forty-five minutes. Since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

After about three minutes . . . a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried off to meet his schedule.

At about four minutes . . . the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the violin case and without stopping, continued to walk.

A few minutes later . . . a young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly, he was late for work.

At ten minutes . . . The one who paid the most attention was a three year old boy. His mother prodded him along, but the child stopped to look at the violinist. Finally, the mother kept him briskly moving and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced their children to move on.

After about forty-five minutes . . . only seven people had stopped and stayed for a while. He collected just $32.17 for his efforts, contributed by a mere twenty-seven of 1,097 passing travelers. When he finished playing and silence took over, only one woman realized what had transpired. It was right at the end. She recognized Bell, watched the last two minutes of his performance, then went up to him to say hello.

Except for that one woman, no one knew that the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the finest musicians in the world. He played some of the most intricate pieces ever written on a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Three days before his playing in this subway station gig, Joshua Bell’s concert sold out at Boston’s Symphony Hall, where the seats averaged $100.

Now, this is a true story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. The experiment raised several worthy questions. For instance, in a commonplace environment, at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? If so, do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be this: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the finest musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?

Former Poet Laureate of the United States, Billy Collins once observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother’s heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. I suspect that it may be true with music, too. There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, that child tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the child away.

The Welsh poet, W. H. Davies has written: What is this life if, full of care/ We have no time to stand and stare. (from “Leisure”)

So, enjoy life NOW! After all, life has an expiration date.

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An A+ Performance

Every now and then a story crosses my desk that I feel compelled to share with my readers. This is one of those stories.

Her name is Sydney Smoot.

Remember that name!

She is destined to be a star at whatever she decides to do!

Sydney Smoot (Photo: BayNews9)

Sydney Smoot (Photo: BayNews9)

Sydney Smoot, is a nine-year-old fourth grader at Brooksville Elementary School in Hernando County, Florida, who has more confidence than many adults. She made many jaws drop because of just how grown-up she sounds. Sydney Smoot appeared at the 17 March 2015, Florida school board meeting to voice her concerns about standardized testing that she believes unfairly judges students. She took her turn at the podium and by the end of her brief speech, the entire audience leapt to their feet in applause.

Smoot wrote (with help from her mom) and powerfully delivered (all by herself) a speech about Florida’s new standardized test, the FSA (Florida Standards Assessment) that drew loud applause from the audience.

As you may have guessed by now, Sydney Smoot is not happy with having to take the FSA, the state-mandated assessment Florida paid a private company to create in place of a Common Core test the state was originally planning to give until it dropped the Common Core State Standards. A new set of standards was created for Florida, though many say they are remarkably similar to the Common Core Standards. The new Florida Standards Assessment was developed, under a six-year $220 million contract approved by the state, to the American Institutes for Research. The organization did not field-test the new Florida test in Florida, but rather in Utah, where it had another testing contract.

Smoot may be speaking specifically of the FSA tests, but schools across the country are grappling with a surge in standardized testing. These exams are aimed at holding schools accountable for student education, but often they end up taking valuable time and resources away from teaching tailored to the needs of individual students.

The nine-year-old’s mother, Jennifer Smoot, said she helped her daughter with the speech, but the nine-year-old wrote most of it herself.

Here is Sydney Smoot, a “well-educated young lady” in her own voice. (Please click on the arrowhead to listen)

And here is a transcript of what she said at that March meeting: “Hello fellow members of the school board. Today I will express my concerns about the FSA testing. I consider myself a well-educated young lady. However, with FSA tests, my 5 years of school all on honor roll do not matter.

“This testing looks at me as a number. One test defines me as either a failure or a success through a numbered rubric. One test at the end of the year that the teacher or myself will not even see the grade until after the school year is already over.  I do not feel that all this FSA testing is accurate to tell how successful I am. It doesn’t take in account all of my knowledge and abilities, just a small percentage.

“Here are my concerns. First of all, I do not feel good about a form in the FSA that you have to sign ensuring that you can’t even discuss the test with your parents. I am not comfortable signing something like this. I have the right to talk to my parents about any and everything related to school and my education.

“Second, why am I being forced to take a test that hasn’t even been tested on students here in Florida, so how can it be valid and accurate on what I know?

“Why are we taking up most of the year stressing and prepping for one test at the end of the year when we should be taking tests throughout the year that really measure our abilities?

“My opinion is that we should take a test at the beginning of the year, middle, and at the end of the school year to accurately measure what we know.

“Third, the stress and pressure that this testing puts on me and I’m sure most students is not healthy. Why should we have so much stress about one test when we should be learning and having fun in school?

“With all of this testing in school, more fun things in school such as recess are being eliminated because of all of the training for the tests.

“So ladies and gentlemen of the school board, I urge you to put a stop to high stakes testing today. It is not good for the schools, teachers, and students.

“Parents and students, contact your governor to put a stop to all this standardized testing. Thank you very much for your time.”

All I can say is WOW!

Even at such a young age, Smoot has the common sense, the compassion, and the presence of mind to out-Senator half of the actual Senators in Washington.  I thank her parents for giving her such a practical education! The cynic in me wanted to point out that no 4th grader uses a term like “rubric.” But then I remembered my own nine-year-old grandson who uses words well beyond his years. But that is missing the point. Sydney Smoot is smart enough, and is certainly eloquent enough, to give that speech that is damn impressive on its own. So to hell with the cynicism!

I taught Public Speaking 101 on the college level – and if Sydney Smoot were my student – she would definitely receive an A+ for her oration before that Florida school board.

Tests or no tests, it is clear that Sydney Smoot has a very bright future ahead. Bravo, Sydney!

Franklin Graham – Not A Chip Off the Old Block

Franklin Graham talks to his father, Billy Graham, at the Billy Graham Library dedication service in Charlotte, North Carolina, in May 2007.

Franklin Graham talks to his father, Billy Graham, at the Billy Graham Library dedication service in Charlotte, North Carolina, in May 2007.

When I was a teenager, the name Billy Graham was a household word and a respected name. My family would watch the Billy Graham Crusades on television whenever they were broadcast. It was hard not to watch and to listen to Billy Graham. He was a mesmerizing figure: he had movie star looks; a strong, compelling voice; a charmingly soft Southern accent; and a charismatic stage presence. His message was as simple as it was powerful: Our lives on earth are short. Soon enough each of us will die. Do you want to go to heaven? Then you must give your life to Christ. You must accept him as your Lord and Savior and enter into a personal relationship with him. He is even now lovingly extending his hand to you. Will you not take it? And then, quoting Scripture (2 Corinthians 6:2), he would say, “Now is the accepted time; today is the day of salvation. This is the hour of decision.” Then would come the altar call led by Graham’s superb musical team of  George Beverly Shea, dubbed “America’s beloved Gospel singer;” Cliff Barrows, music and program director; Tedd Smith, pianist, and Don Hustad and John Innes, organists, as they played and sang the moving old hymn Just As I Am Without One Plea. Graham would invite – encourage – plead with those attending his “crusades” or listening to his “Hour of Decision” program to stand up and give their lives to Christ. Watching Graham from my living room, even I felt the impulse to get out of my chair. But that was oh so long ago and so far away from where I am today. So let’s fast-forward to today. . .

Today, the name “Graham” is still in the news, but it is not Billy who is making the headlines. The elder Graham is now 96, has had Parkinson’s disease since 1992, and reportedly is largely confined to his bed. The Graham who is making the headlines now is Billy Graham’s eldest son, William Franklin Graham III, known simply as Franklin Graham. And those headlines are often controversial. Billy Graham was a powerful preacher of the gospel. Franklin Graham is a political hack.

The apple fell pretty far from the tree with Franklin Graham. He is very different from his celebrated father. Franklin Graham has been accused of being a rhetorical and theological bully, saying such things as Islam is “wicked and evil” and “This is Islam. It has not been hijacked by radicals. This is the faith; this is the religion. It is what it is. It speaks for itself. It is the same. It is a religion of war.” And concerning gays, Graham has said, “Have you ever asked yourself – how can we fight the tide of moral decay that is being crammed down our throats by big business, the media, and the gay and lesbian community?” That sentence is almost interesting until you realize that Graham casually associates gay people with the moral decline of America!

Graham agrees with the assessment that he is less gentle than his father.  “We preach the same Gospel,” Graham says, “but Daddy hates to say no. I can say no.” Graham adds that he is much more engaged in the day-to-day management of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, of which he is president and CEO, than his father ever was. Through the efforts of his humanitarian organization, Samaritan’s Purse, he has much more experience on the front lines of global conflicts, such as those in Rwanda and the Middle East. This perspective, Graham argues, justifies his harder, more abrasive edge. “I’ve been doing a different kind of ministry,” he says. “That has shaped my views on a lot of things.”

Franklin Graham also takes political sides in a way that his father never did. Billy Graham was by no means uninterested in politics. By the middle 1960s, Billy Graham had become the “Great Legitimator” – his presence conferred sanctity on events, authority on presidents, acceptability on wars, desirability on decency, and shame on indecency. Billy Graham formed friendships with many politicians, including Presidents Richard Nixon, a Republican and Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat. By the middle 1970s, many dubbed Billy Graham the “pastor to presidents.” He prayed with Democratic and Republican chief executives alike – every one of them from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. His rabid anti-communism mellowed with age, and he never forgot that preaching was his real calling.

But Franklin Graham is a very different man. By contrast, Franklin Graham’s political friendships lean hard to the right. He most recently expressed support for the improbable presidential candidacy of business magnate, investor, and television personality, Donald Trump, even parroting the same sort of “birther” nonsense that Trump has pedaled, saying that President Obama had “some issues to deal with” in terms of proving he was born in Hawaii. “I was born in a hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, and I know that my records are there. You can probably even go and find out what room my mother was in when I was born. I don’t know why he [Obama] can’t produce that,” Graham has said.

Graham says the rules of political engagement have changed since his father was a public figure. “It’s sad to see how polarized our nation has become. If a political party doesn’t like you, then they start attacking you,” he says. “I like the president [Obama]. He’s a nice man. I just disagree – strongly – with the spending that both Republicans and Democrats alike are responsible for. It’s not right.” But it is not only the spending that Graham does not like.

Graham says that President Obama is sympathetic to Islam and is giving Muslim groups access to influence United States foreign policy, which eventually will lead to persecution of Christians and Jews in America. In a 2012 interview on CBN’s 700 Club Interactive program, Graham told host Gordon Robertson that the president’s upbringing is the reason that he favors Islam. “We’re going to see persecution in this country because our president is very sympathetic to Islam and the reason I say that, Gordon, is because his father was a Muslim, gave him a Muslim name, Barack Hussein Obama. His mother married another Muslim man; they moved to Indonesia, he went to Indonesian schools. So, growing up, his frame of reference and his influence as a young man was Islam. It wasn’t Christianity; it was Islam. I’m not saying the president is Muslim, never said he’s a Muslim. He says he’s a Christian. I take him at his word.” But Graham then added that under sharia [Islamic] law, Obama is still considered a Muslim because his father was a Muslim. “That’s why [Muammar al-Gaddafi] calls him ‘my son,’” he noted. “To the Muslim world that’s under sharia law, which we’re not, they see him [Obama] as a lost son. They see him as a wayward child. It goes by birth in the Islamic world. You’re considered a Muslim if your father is a Muslim.”

Well, not so fast, Franklin Graham. While it is true that in Muslim cultures, the children of Muslims are generally assumed to be Muslim themselves, most of the sources I read stated that whether one truly is a Muslim or not really depends on belief in Muslim teaching and following its practices, not whether one is born into the faith. For instance, Blain Auer, an assistant professor of Islamic studies at Western Michigan University, states that the most prominent requirement for being a Muslim is for believers to recite the shahadah, a statement of faith that affirms: “I bear witness that there is no god except Allah. And I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” Auer concludes by saying, “Franklin Graham’s statement is incorrect. Islam is an act of faith, not a genetic disposition.”

Earlier this year, Franklin Graham continued to beat the drum that suggests President Obama and his administration are somehow under the sway of a cabal of Islamic Svengalis. He worries that “our foreign policy has a lot of influence now from Muslims.” His proof? The Obama administration’s less than enthusiastic reception of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before congress. This tepid response, says Graham, is proof that Islam is exerting perilous influence on American foreign policy. Graham sees this development as a reckless tolerance of Islam and that such an attitude is both telling and ominous: “They [Muslims] hate Israel and they hate Christians, and so the storm is coming.”

But I am more than a little confused about what is being said here. While a candidate, Barack Obama was accused of being a radical Christian – a follower of United Church of Christ Pastor Jeremiah Wright. (Remember him?) After the election, the President was accused of being a Muslim extremist. Now, according to Graham, he is accused of being under the influence of Svengali, a fictional Jewish character in George du Maurier’s 1895 novel Trilby. So what does that make President Obama? A militant Christian, terrorist Muslim of Jewish origin? Please explain this to me, Franklin Graham.

Inasmuch as President Obama has been more than clear about his Christian commitments, continuing to question his faith is just a more socially acceptable way of calling him a liar.

But that does not seem to daunt Franklin Graham. He may be his father’s son, but he is not a “chip off the old block.” His viperous outbursts and questioning of President Obama’s faith is nothing less than despicable.

But even if Franklin Graham were correct, what exactly would be the problem with Muslims having greater access to the White House? After all, Graham’s father, a Christian evangelist, had great access to the White House and no one batted an eye.

Unless someone has hijacked the Constitution or has altered the Golden Rule when no one was paying attention, it is neither illegal nor immoral to be a practitioner of Islam. Not in this country. Not the last time I looked. So, why is the furor over which Franklin Graham exercises himself so feverishly such a big deal for him? Is the illusion of Muslims running amok at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue a vexing fantasy for him?

The only thing I can think of that even remotely justifies Graham’s narrow-minded view of the Muslim community is the mistaken belief that we live in something called a “Christian nation.” But take it from at least one Christian – namely, me – the United States of America is not a Christian nation. There may be a Christian plurality in the United States, but this nation was not founded as a Christian nation. It never was, and God help us if it ever should be. We are not a theocracy. We are not a theonomy. We are a secular democracy and the separation of church and state is very real for us as a nation. This overheated fantasy of a Christian nation troubles me on a couple of different levels.

First, what I find most troubling is that many of the Christians who insist that Jesus never sanctioned government assistance when it comes to poverty or healthcare or any of the social safety net services that government provides for its citizenry are simultaneously the same people who are convinced that government would not be so bad as long as Christians were running the show. Ask any of the Christian Dominionists about this. For instance, ask Michele Bachmann, or Rick Perry, or Sarah Palin, or Pat Robertson – or any of the others who have flirted with the idea of Christian Dominionism. They will tell you. In case you are not aware, Christian Dominionism is the idea that Christians should work toward either a nation governed by Christians or one governed by a conservative Christian understanding of biblical law. Such thinking was expressed by Katherine Harris, the former Secretary of State of Florida, who also ran for the United States Senate, when she wrote in the Florida Baptist Witness newspaper: “God is the one who chooses our rulers. If you are not electing Christians, tried and true, under public scrutiny and pressure, if you’re not electing Christians, then in essence you are going to legislate sin. They can legislate sin. They can say that abortion is alright. They can vote to sustain gay marriage. Then we’re going to have a nation of secular laws. That’s not what our founding fathers intended and that certainly isn’t what God intended.” Really? And this statement from an elected official? I believe Ms. Harris needs to take a refresher course both on the Constitution of the United States and on the Bible.

President Ronald Reagan famously intoned: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government IS the problem.” Those words sounded good and many popular conservative versions of Christianity enthusiastically applauded his rhetoric. But those same Christian enthusiasts seemed to want to qualify Reagan’s denunciation of government by tacking onto the end of his statement the words, “unless Christians are in charge of it.” Government, in other words, is inherently bad – except when it is not – except when Christians are in charge. Good grief!

But you cannot have it both ways.   You cannot say that government is inherently flawed, is the cause of all the world’s problems when someone else is in charge and then turn around and insist that Christians have some kind of divine/historical claim to being in charge. To take that stance not only is illogical, but also it means that apparently government is an obvious gift to the world, healing everything from the nation’s supposed morally ravaged soul to its alleged tortured relationship with Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber or the Kardashians!

And then secondly, I am troubled by the assertion that greater access by Muslims to the halls of power is a bad thing. Just what is the problem for Graham with Muslims? Unfortunately, he does not qualify his paranoia with unwieldy nuance. But Franklin Graham has a penchant for spewing hatred and as far as I am concerned, that proclivity is a more devastating argument about his commitment to the teachings of Christ whom he professes to serve than anything else. I will refrain from judging Franklin Graham’s status as a Christian and just say that I do not think much of his brand of Christianity. To his skewed way of thinking, a Muslim is a Muslim is a Muslim is a Muslim ad infinitumad nauseam. He seems to labor under the paranoidial delusion that all Muslims are dangerously subversive suicide-bombers-in-waiting. And that, I submit, is a terribly unfair brush with which to paint all Muslims.

And as if that were not bad enough, suppose that Muslims were to think that all Christians are as mean-spirited and as narrow-minded as Franklin Graham. I suspect that they may already harbor such thoughts

The Reluctant Hero

Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” – Talmud Yerushalmi, Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:1

Nicholas Winton with one of the hundreds of Jewish Children whose lives he saved during World War II [Photo: Press Association, via Associated Press

Nicholas Winton with one of the hundreds of Jewish Children whose lives he saved during World War II [Photo: Press Association, via Associated Press]

On 1 July 2015, Sir Nicholas Winton died. You say that you have never heard of Nicholas Winton? That is not surprising given that this extraordinary man shunned the spotlight for many years until almost by accident his noble deeds were uncovered. He was a real hero – albeit a reluctant one – to about 670 children. If you have never heard of Nicholas Winton, let me take this opportunity to tell his inspiring story.

Nicholas Winton’s story is the story of an ordinary man who never asked to be thanked. It is the story of a man who did what he thought was his duty as a human being and a pacifist. In 1939, Nicholas Winton, a London stockbroker set about trying to save the doomed Jewish children of an about to be invaded Czechoslovakia. His efforts saved 669 of them. In 1939, there were some 15,000 Czech Jewish children in existence. By the end of World War Two in 1945 only 100 or so of those children were left alive plus the 669 who Nicholas Winton had managed to save and get to Great Britain before the European borders closed down.

In theory, Nicholas Winton could be considered one of the “righteous among the nations” – a term for a gentile who helped the Jewish people in their time of need. I say “in theory” because Nicholas Winton was born a Jew even though he did not practice his faith, nor did his family. He could not be bestowed with the honor of being designated “righteous among the nations” by the Israeli government because he was Jewish in the eyes of Jewish law. But he could be recognized and acknowledged by those whom he helped save. And he was. [Winton was born Nicholas George Wertheim in London on 19 May 1909, one of three children of Rudolf and Barbara [née Wertheimer] Wertheim. His parents were of German-Jewish origin but converted to Christianity and changed the family name to Winton.]

The story begins in December 1938. Nicholas Winton, a twenty-nine-year-old London stockbroker, was about to leave for a skiing holiday in Switzerland when he received a phone call from his friend Martin Blake asking him to cancel his holiday and immediately come to Prague: “I have a most interesting assignment and I need your help. Don’t bother bringing your skis.” When Winton arrived, Blake asked him to help in the camps, in which thousands of refugees were living in appalling conditions.

The pogroms of Kristallnacht had recently struck Jewish shops, homes and synagogues in Germany and Austria. Kristallnacht was a pogrom (a series of coordinated deadly attacks) against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and Austria on 9–10 November 1938, carried out by Sturmabteilung [SA] paramilitary forces and non-Jewish civilians. German authorities looked on without intervening. The name Kristallnacht refers to the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues had their windows smashed. Kristallnacht  is also known as “The Night of Broken Glass.” War looked inevitable, and escape, especially for children, seemed hopeless, given the restrictions against Jewish immigration in the West.

Kindertransport Memorial outside Liverpool Street Station, London, by Frank Meister (2006)

Kindertransport Memorial outside Liverpool Street Station, London, by Frank Meister (2006)

Great Britain, however, was an exception. It agreed to admit unaccompanied Jewish children up to age seventeen if they had a host family, with the offer of a £50 warranty for an eventual return ticket. In late 1938, Great Britain began a program, called Kindertransport, (children transport) a rescue mission that took place during the nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. Often these children were the only members of their families who survived the Holocaust.

But there was no comparable mass-rescue effort in Czechoslovakia, so Nicholas Winton created one. His plan involved dangers, bribes, forgery, secret contacts with the Gestapo, nine railroad trains, an avalanche of paperwork, and a lot of money. Nazi agents started following Winton. In his Prague hotel room, he met terrified parents desperate to get their children to safety, although it meant surrendering them to strangers in a foreign land.

Independently of Operation Kindertransport, Nicholas Winton set up his own rescue operation. At first, Winton’s office was a dining room table at his hotel in Wenceslas Square in Prague. Anxious parents, who gradually came to understand the danger they and their children faced, came to Winton and placed the future of their children in his hands. As their numbers grew, a storefront office was opened on Vorsilska Street, under the charge of Trevor Chadwick. Thousands of parents heard about this unique endeavor and long lines attracted Gestapo attention. Perilous confrontations were resolved with bribes. Eventually, Winton registered more than 900 children, although he had names and details on over 5,000.

In early 1939, Winton left his two friends, Trevor Chadwick and Bill Barazetti in charge in Prague. Because he wanted to save the lives of as many of the endangered children as possible, Winton returned to London and planned for the transport of children to Great Britain. He worked at his regular job on the Stock Exchange by day, and then devoted late afternoons and evenings to his rescue efforts, often working far into the night. He and a few volunteers, including his mother, calling themselves The British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, Children’s Section, enlisted aid from the Refugee Children’s Movement, had photos of the children printed and appealed for funds and foster homes in newspaper ads and church and synagogue bulletins.

Winton contacted the governments of nations he thought could take in the children. Only Sweden and his own government said yes. Great Britain promised to accept children under the age of eighteen as long as he found homes and guarantors who could deposit £50 for each child to pay for their return home.

Hundreds of families volunteered to take children, and money trickled in from donors – not enough to cover all the costs, but Winton made up the difference himself. He also appealed to the Home Office for entry visas, but the response was slow and time was short. So Winton forged the Home Office entry permits.

Meanwhile, in Prague, Trevor Chadwick quietly cultivated the chief of the Gestapo, Karl Bömelburg and arranged for forged transit papers and bribes to be passed to key Nazis and Czech railway officials, who threatened to halt trains or seize the children unless they were paid off. The Gestapo chief proved instrumental, clearing the trains and transit papers.

Winton sent more money, some for bribes and some to cover expenses for children whose parents had been arrested and shot or who had fled into hiding, while many of the Czech families sold possessions to pay for their children’s escape. The red tape and the paperwork seemed endless.

But on 14 March 1939, it all came together. Just hours before Adolf Hitler made the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia German Protectorates, the first twenty children left Prague on a train. Survivors told of heart-rending scenes on the station platform in the final moments before departure as children sobbed and pleaded not to be sent away and weeping parents faced giving up their children and probably never seeing them again.

Winton and his colleagues later arranged for eight more trains to get the rest of the children out, crossing the Third Reich through Nuremberg and Cologne to the Hook of Holland (a town in the western Netherlands), then across the North Sea by boat to Harwich, Essex, and finally, by British rail to the Liverpool Street Station in London. There, he and the host families met the children. Each refugee had a small bag and wore a name tag.

Jewish refugee children arrive in London in February 1939 [Photo: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images]

Jewish refugee children arrive in London in February 1939 [Photo: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images]

But only seven of the eight trains made it through, the last train in early August, bringing the total rescued to 669. About 250 children, the largest group, were on board the last train out, on 1 September 1939. On that day, however, Hitler invaded Poland, all borders controlled by Germany were closed and Winton’s rescue efforts came to an end. There were 250 families waiting at Liverpool Street Station 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. All are believed to have perished in Nazi concentration camps. [On 1 September 2009, seventy years after the onset of the war halted the rescue operations, a special train with a locomotive and carriages from the 1930s left Prague to re-create those perilous 1939 journeys. On board, were some of the original children and many of their descendants, whose numbers now exceed 6,000.]

Nearly all the saved children were orphans by war’s end, their parents killed at Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, or Terezin (Theresienstadt.) After the war, many remained in Britain, but others returned to Czechoslovakia or emigrated to Israel, Australia, or the United States. The rescued children, many now grandparents, still refer to themselves as “Winton’s children.” Among those saved were the British film director Karel Reisz (The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Isadora, Sweet Dreams, and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning); Canadian journalist and news correspondent for CBC, Joe Schlesinger (originally from Slovakia); Alf Dubs, Lord Dubs (a former Minister in Tony Blair’s Labor Cabinet); Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines (a patron of the arts whose father, Rudolf Fleischmann, saved German and anti-Nazi novelist, Thomas Mann from the Nazis); Dagmar Šimová (a cousin of the former United States Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright); Tom Schrecker, (a Reader’s Digest manager); Hugo Marom (a famous aviation consultant, and one of the founders of the Israeli Air Force); Renata Laxová, a geneticist who discovered the Neu-Laxová Syndrome, a congenital abnormality; and Vera Gissing (author of Pearls of Childhood and coauthor of Nicholas Winton and the Rescued Generation.) Until his death, Winton wore a ring given to him by some of the children he saved. It was inscribed with a line from the Talmud, the book of Jewish law. It reads: Save one life, save the world.

For fifty years, Winton said nothing of the children’s rescue, not even to his wife. But in 1988, after finding his long-hidden scrapbook, his story came to light. In that dusty old book were the records of names, pictures letters from families, travel documents, notes crediting his colleagues, and documents detailing a story of redemption from the Holocaust. It was then that Winton spoke of his all-but-forgotten work in the deliverance of children who, like the parents who gave them up to save their lives, were destined for Nazi concentration camps and certain extermination.

Winton’s wife Grete [née Gjelstrup], a Dane whom he married in 1948, asked him for an explanation and Winton gave her a general idea, but said he thought the papers had no value and suggested discarding them. “You can’t throw those papers away,” she responded. “They are children’s lives.”

Winton’s wife took the scrapbook to Holocaust-studies expert Dr. Elisabeth Maxwell and told her Winton’s remarkable story. Dr. Maxwell related Winton’s story to her husband, Czechoslovak-born newspaper mogul Robert Maxwell, and soon the London-based tabloid the Sunday Mirror was headlining and hailing Winton as “Britain’s Oskar Schindler.” The scrapbook and other material is now kept with Yad Vashem, Israel’s  official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, located on the western slope of Mount Herzl on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem.

By all accounts, Nicholas Winton – Sir Nicholas in the United Kingdom since 2003, when he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for “services to humanity” – was an incredibly modest man who did not want to brag about what he did and was often stunned by the accolades he received for his actions.

For all his ensuing honors and accolades, Nicholas Winton was a reluctant hero, often compared to Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved 1,200 Jews by employing them in his enamelware and munitions factories in Poland and Czechoslovakia, and to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish businessman and diplomat who used illegal passports and legation hideaways to save tens of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary.

Nicholas Winton’s story ended on 1 July 2015 with his death at Wexham Hospital in Slough from respiratory failure, with his daughter Barbara and two grandchildren at his bedside [His wife, Grete, died in 1999]. Winton died seventy-six years to the day, on the anniversary of the largest train load that saved 241 children. He was 106 years old.

Here, once again, is proof that the good do not necessarily die young.

The Nobel Prize recipient and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, a man who has dedicated his life to ensuring that none of us forget what happened to the Jews at the hands of the Nazis, wrote these words that could easily describe Nicholas Winton:

“In those times there was darkness everywhere. In heaven and on earth, all the gates of compassion seemed to have been closed. The killer killed and the Jews died and the outside world adopted an attitude either of complicity or of indifference. Only a few had the courage to care. These few men and women were vulnerable, afraid, helpless – what made them different from their fellow citizens?… Why were there so few?… Let us remember: What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of the bystander…. Let us not forget, after all, there is always a moment when moral choice is made…. And so we must know these good people who helped Jews during the Holocaust. We must learn from them, and in gratitude and hope, we must remember them.”

Nicholas Winton was one of those good people. And now you know his story.

Hatred Was Alive and Well in Charleston. . . But So Was Something Else

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, South Carolina

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church,
Charleston, South Carolina

State Senator Clementa C. Pinckney, a tall, forty-one year-old African-American man with a deep sonorous “radio voice” spent the earlier part of June 17, 2015, campaigning with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in  Charleston, South Carolina. But in addition to being a state senator, Pinckney was also a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and that evening he had to attend a scheduled important meeting and a bible study.

Pinckney’s Charleston parish – Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, affectionately known as “Mother Emanuel,” is the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the South and one of the largest and oldest black congregations south of Baltimore, Maryland. The scheduled meeting had several items on its agenda. There was the matter of the church elevator, a project that had long been under construction. Then there was the budget that needed review. And, finally, there were the three parishioners who were to be officially received as new preachers. June 17 was a busy, but an ordinary day for the state senator and senior pastor.

The meeting that day was held in the church basement and ended around 8:00 p.m. The crowd of about fifty attendees dwindled to twelve of the congregation’s devout members, who would remain for the Wednesday night Bible study.

It was also about 8:00 p.m., when the visitor – a youngish white man, with a slender five foot, nine inch build and a distinctive sandy blond hair style – came to the door, asking for the pastor. It was unusual for a stranger, much less a white one, to come to the Wednesday night session, but the Bible study was open to all, and the Reverend Pinckney welcomed him. They sat together around a green table, prayed, sang, and then opened their Bibles for a study of the Scriptures. The text for the evening was Mark 4:16-20, which likens the word of God to a seed that must fall on good soil to bear fruit: “And these in like manner are the ones sown upon rocky ground, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.  And others are the ones sown among thorns; they are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown upon the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”

At about 9:00 p.m., as the Bible study group was wrapping up, the sound of gunfire and terrified cries shattered the evening calm. In the pastor’s office, Reverend Pinckney’s wife, Jennifer, who had been waiting patiently with their younger daughter, Malana, turned off the lights, locked the door, hugged her child close, and called 911.

Felicia Sanders, who was in the basement at the time, heard the gunfire before actually seeing who the gunman was and hid under a table, shielding her eleven-year-old granddaughter as the carnage unfolded around her. She saw blood everywhere. The white visitor was doing the shooting, and he reloaded his weapon five times. Felicia Sanders survived only by pretending to be one of the slain.

Sanders’ son, twenty-six year-old Tywanza, a recent graduate of Allen University, reached out his hand to Susie Jackson, 87, a member of Emanuel’s choir and his great-grand aunt, who had also been shot and touched her hair.

The gunman was heard to say: “Y’all are raping our women and taking over the country. This must be done.” Then he shot Tywanza Sanders. A moment later, he asked a woman if she had been shot yet. When she said no, he said: “Good. Someone has to live to tell the story, because I’m going to kill myself, too.”

Soon, the gunman left, fleeing in his black Hyundai Elantra and leaving behind nine church members dead or dying, including the Reverend Pinckney and two of the newly ordained ministers, each shot multiple times with a .45-caliber handgun. The stranger – identified later by the police as Dylann Roof, a twenty-one-year-old high school dropout and sometime landscaper – was the person responsible for the three men and six women left in a bloody pile in the basement of Mother Emanuel.

In a matter of minutes, the future of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was changed forever. In a matter of minutes, a holy place became the scene of a most unholy act. Church leaders were lost, along with parishioners. Children were left without a mother or a father; a girls’ track team lost its coach; a university was suddenly without its admissions coordinator; a county library found itself without its library manager; the housekeeping staff at the city’s Gaillard Auditorium would have one less employee. And residents of all races in Charleston, South Carolina recoiled in horror as one of its most prominent buildings was desecrated by intolerant racism and bigotry and transformed, if only briefly, into a death house.

It seems that pure unadulterated hatred possessed alleged killer Dylann Roof and pushed him to attend a Bible study class at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal with evil in his heart – and a .45-caliber pistol in his waistband. Incredulously, Dylann Roof sat with the parishioners for an hour before taking out that gun and opening fire, snuffing out nine lives.

We now know that Dylaan Roof was filled with the kind of racial hatred that forms the core of a conversation with which this great nation continues to struggle. No doubt he had hoped to further drive a wedge into race relations and to further divide this country according to the color of one’s skin.

Certainly, it would be understandable if the reaction to this act, especially in Charleston, South Carolina, were to engage in riotous behavior. That would have been the anticipated reaction to the action of an individual who committed such a heinous, hate-filled act.

But Charleston was different. Charleston did not burn as had Ferguson, Missouri. Charleston did not riot as had Baltimore, Maryland. No. In Charleston, South Carolina, they forgave. Charleston, indeed, lived up to its nickname, “The Holy City.”

What flowed from Charleston, from the community, and in particular from the chocolate wooden pews with scarlet cushions of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, was something entirely different, something exceptional, something that just might lead the way out of this horrific darkness.

When Dylaan Roof made his first appearance in court to answer the nine charges of first-degree murder lodged against him, he was met with the antithesis of his racial bitter bile.

Relatives of those he gunned down showed up for the hearing. They did not curse him, or their God. Instead, they expressed forgiveness.

“I forgive you; my family forgives you,” Anthony Thompson said in court. He was still dealing with the murder of his grandmother, Myra Thompson, who had been leading the Bible study on that fateful Wednesday evening. He did not lash out at the suspected gunman. Instead he asked him to repent.

Some people believe that it took an incredible amount of love and faith for family members and loved ones of those killed to publicly declare their forgiveness of twenty-one-year-old white supremacist, Dylann Roof. Frankly, I do not know how they were able to do that. Given the same set of circumstances, I am not sure that I could have done what they did. It was amazing to witness and I stand in awe of such grace, such compassion.

I am reminded of an incident that involved Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross. Barton was reminded one day of a vicious deed that someone had done to her years before. But she acted as if she had never even heard of the incident. “Don’t you remember it?” her friend asked. “No,” came Barton’s reply, “I distinctly remember forgetting it.” Neither the members of Mother Emanuel nor the people of Charleston will forget what happened in that basement on that tragic night, but they did the next best thing possible.

At 10 a.m., on the Sunday after the bloody massacre, every church in Charleston tolled its bells in an exhibition of solidarity. For nine long minutes the bells pealed, one minute for each victim. And on that same Sunday morning, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was filled with boisterous noise and raised voices. But those voices were not raised in anger, either against Dylann Roof or the racism that he represented. No. They were raised in forgiveness, and in support of the families of the nine victims, and of the Charleston community that was ripped apart.

Dylann Roof will soon be forgotten – as he should be – reduced to a sad and  despicable footnote in the annals of American history, as this great  nation continues  to debate, to analyze, and to struggle with the heated topic of race relations.

In the wake of such a venomous act as that committed by Dylaan Roof in Charleston, we, as a nation, look for answers. We look for a path. We look for the way out of this vile madness.

So once again, we will talk about race.

Once again, we will talk about guns.

Once again, we will talk about flags – Confederate battle flags, this time.

And once again, we will talk about politics.

Eventually, no doubt these same topics will be talked about at Mother Emanuel and in Charleston as well. But first, they are talking about forgiveness.

But as President Barack Obama said so inspiringly in his moving eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney: “None of us can or should expect a transformation in race relations overnight. Every time something like this happens, somebody says, ‘We have to have a conversation about race.’ We talk a lot about race.

“There’s no shortcut. We don’t need more talk.

“None of us should believe that a handful of gun safety measures will prevent every tragedy.

“It will not. People of good-will will continue to debate the merits of various policies as our democracy requires – the big, raucous place, America is. And there are good people on both sides of these debates.

“Whatever solutions we find will necessarily be incomplete. But it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allow ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again.

“Once the eulogies have been delivered, once the TV cameras move on, to go back to business as usual. That’s what we so often do to avoid uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society.

“To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change, that’s how we lose our way again. It would be a refutation of the forgiveness expressed by those families if we merely slipped into old habits whereby those who disagree with us are not merely wrong, but bad; where we shout instead of listen; where we barricade ourselves behind preconceived notions or well-practiced cynicism.”

People like Dylann Roof hope to deepen the racial divide in this country even further, perhaps even to start a race war. But the parishioners of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church will not let that happen. In his sermon on the Sunday after the killings, the Reverend Norvel Goff, interim pastor of Mother Emanuel said:  “A lot of folk expected us to do something strange and break out in a riot. Well, they just don’t know us. We are a people of faith. We believe that when we put our forces and our heads together, working for a common good, there is nothing we can’t accomplish together in the name of Jesus.

And then, just one week after Roof’s heinous act desecrated their sacred space and killed nine of their parishioners, including their pastor, worshippers gathered once again in the same room where bullets once flew and blood was spilled. “This territory belongs to God,” the Reverend Norvel Goff told the roughly 150 people gathered for the resumption of the weekly Bible study in the basement of the church. Fittingly, the theme for the study was “The Power of Love.”

AND, the people of Charleston, and especially, the members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church have shown a watching nation looking for an answer that there is a way out of this horrible darkness. The way is called forgiveness. And forgiveness is alive and well in Charleston, South Carolina.

Hatred brought our attention to Charleston, South Carolina.  Forgiveness just might bring us out. As Jermaine Watkins, who is an African-American and a teaching pastor at Charleston’s Journey Church said in a meeting after the killings: “To hatred, we say no way – not today. To racism, we say no way – not today. To division, we say no way – not today. To loss of hope, we say no way – not today. To a racial war, we say no way – not today. To racial fear, we say no way – not today. Charleston, together, we say no way – not today. To reconciliation, we say yes.”

My fervent hope is that he is right.