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How Are You Spending Your Ordinary Life?

Movie poster for One Life, which features Anthony Hopkins wearing glasses and smaller images of people on a train platform and a train

On Saturday afternoon, Mark and I went to see One Life at my favorite Living Room Theaters. [Side note: Their Cherry Coke and popcorn with butter: delight!) There was a massive St. Patrick's Day party going on outside at Bottleworks District, which likely explains why we were the only people in the theater at the 2 pm showing. [Another side note: Being the only people in a theater watching a move, also a delight!]

One Life tells the story of the work of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, a volunteer organization established in October 1938 with the purpose to evacuate those most at-risk in a Nazi occupation, mostly political refugees and Jewish families, from Czechoslovakia to Britain. In December 1938, Nicky Winton traveled to Prague to visit his friend, Martin Blake, an associate of the Committee. While in Prague, Nicky met Doreen Warriner, the head of the Committee, who took him to refugee camps, filled to capacity with people, including parents with children.

Nicky took special note of the children and started asking about getting the children to Great Britain. There was already infrastructure in place to get unaccompanied children, especially Jewish children, out of Germany and Austria, but not Czechoslovakia. Nicky was determined to change that because he couldn't unsee what he'd seen, namely desperate parents in deplorable conditions trying to get their children to the relative safety of Great Britain. In addition, the Committee's original charge was to get endangered adults out of Czechoslovakia, so evacuating unaccompanied children was a giant, new undertaking.

Collectively, Kindertransport operations brought about 10,000 children (most of them Jewish) to Great Britain from Nazi-occupied countries. This took money (including a £50 surety bond for each child, the equivalent of about $5,000 today), a willing British foster family, health checks, and lots of documentation, all of which had to be in perfect order. Nicky happened to be good at organizing paperwork, advocating through the bureaucracy, and asking others to help him, including his mother.

In one scene of the movie, Nicky, Doreen, Trevor Chadwick (another British volunteer), and Hana (a Czech volunteer) are having a drink and a meeting of the minds-- they will begin working to evacuate as many children as they can. Doreen looks at Nicky and says, "You have a lot of faith in ordinary people," to which Nicky responds, "Because I am an ordinary person," as tears silently streamed down my cheeks.

In total, the Committee evacuated 669 children, in eight groups, between March and August 1939. In the movie, on September 1, a ninth group of 250 children is on a train, about to depart from Prague, when it is stopped by Nazis because Germany had invaded Poland and Great Britain was officially at war with Germany. Later, we learned that only two of the children in the ninth group survived the war.

Many of the scenes in present-time (1987-1988) in the movie depict Nicky thinking about all the children they couldn't save. As he points out, that ninth group was their largest group... they just ran out of time. Much of the present-time story is also about all of the volunteer work that Nicky did in the decades since, always with the undercurrent of he can never do enough.

Friends, I can't stop thinking about this movie. I wanted to see it because I'd seen a clip of when Nicky Winton had been on That's Life in 1988 and was surprised by some of the children he'd help save, which is beautifully depicted in the movie. It is a gorgeous and well-told story. But the two things I can't stop thinking about are the centering of common humanity and witnessing.

Nicky points out that he has faith in ordinary people because he is one. He trusts that others will see the same suffering he has, will turn toward it, and offer to do what they can, whether it's donate money, offer a foster home for a child, or dig into the massive paperwork task. He also sees himself as ordinary because he comes back to London, where he works his day job as a stock broker and then works on Committee business in the afternoon and evenings. As he pointed out in the movie, the market closes at 3:30 pm, so he can do both. Also, he's the guy on the team who can navigate the Home Office bureaucracy in London, get all the paperwork in order, and receive the arriving children. Although he never stops thinking about the children left behind, he did what he could at the time.

There's also a theme of witnessing what Nicky, and others saw, and telling the story. He wrote letters to the editor and talked to his colleagues and friends and neighbors. The story was the same: These people are in dire circumstances, here's what is needed to help them, and everybody can help.

Even at the end of his life, when it was estimated that over 6,000 people are alive because of the work of the Committee, Nicky was clear that it was because ordinary people did what they could do, even stuff as mundane as paperwork.

I'm left with several inquiries:

  • What if all of us ordinary people got really intentional about how we're spending our ordinary lives?

  • What if we could sit with that inquiry while also letting inevitable unpleasant feelings, such as "Not enough!" or "One person can't make a difference!", arise, be, and pass through?

  • What if we could let go of the idea that the only way to "make a difference" is to do something BIG? ALL efforts create ripples.

  • Why not get started (or begin again) before we run out of time?

Not sure where to start? One option is to visit Sir Nicholas Winton's website to support refugees. Another is to come sit with us on a Wednesday morning to get grounded so you can work skillfully with these inquiries.

Tired of the seemingly dismal state of affairs? Me (an ordinary person), too. What are we going to do about it?

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