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A Tale of Two Heroes

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If one of us were to spot an oncoming danger or become aware of evil in our midst, would we take action to right the wrong? Two men of our age, little known to most, give us courage to stand up for our neighbor when the chips are down.

For the just-deceased Nicholas Winton, righting the wrong wasn't just a hypothetical question, but a stark reality: Winton, who died yesterday at age 106, was an English businessman who managed to save hundreds of Czech-Jewish children from certain death on the eve of World War II. His daring deed serves as an example for us all in compassion.

In 1939, Nicholas Winton was a working in the banking sector when, through friends and contacts in Czechoslovakia, he learned of thousands of children whose parents were hoping to get them out of the country. Nazi persecutions were looming after Adolph Hitler first annexed the Sudetenland and then overran the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia without a shot fired. Using bribery and the tactics of spies and smugglers, Winton managed to spirit 669 children to safety in Britain. Never mentioning his actions until his wife found evidence of them in the family attic in 1988, Winton finally had this to say about managing risk for a noble cause:

One saw the problem there, that a lot of these children were in danger, and you had to get them to what was called a safe haven, and there was no organization to do that. Why did I do it? Why do people do different things. Some people revel in taking risks, and some go through life taking no risks at all.

Another man not afraid of taking risks on behalf of those he loved was St. John Maximovitch of Shanghai. Known as "the Wonderworker" for the miraculous events that accompanied him wherever he went, this unassuming Russian Orthodox priest was a missionary in China at the same time Nicholas Winton was on his rescue mission in Czechoslovakia. Through all the terrors of war and Japanese occupation, St. John protected his flock and would always extend a helping hand to anyone in need. With the triumph of Mao's Communists in 1949, St. John ultimately brought 5,000 refugees out of China, with many following him to San Francisco.

Most striking in St. John was his humility, the humility of a man who knew he was imperfect and still sought to love God and neighbor. He remarked on this simple faith in his reflection on the thief who was redeemed at the Crucifixion:

The faith of the thief, born of his esteem for Christ's moral greatness, proved stronger than the faith of the Apostles, who although captivated by the loftiness of Christ's teaching, based their faith to a still greater extent on the signs and wonders He wrought.

Today the descendants of Nicholas Winton's rescued children number 6,000, while the children and grandchildren of the Chinese refugees brought by St. John to San Francisco can still be seen praying at the cathedral he built at 26th and Geary Street. Winton and St. John's actions were not only feats of bravery, but of a selfless love never seeking glory or earthly fame. Remembering their humble leadership, we all can take our own stand and protect what is sacred in the fight for good.

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