Sometimes I read a story about someone’s life that I set aside in order to do it justice. This is one of those stories.
Nicholas Winton was 30 years old in 1938, working as a stockbroker in London.
Shortly before Christmas that year he was planning to travel to Switzerland for a skiing holiday. Instead, his friend Martin Blake, who was in Prague with the British Committee for Refugees, asked him for help: Blake was trying to get Jewish children out of Prague before the Nazis completed the takeover of the Czech Republic. Winton went immediately to Prague.
Winton found vast camps of refugees living in appalling conditions, but Blake told him of a unique opportunity to save Jewish children if they acted quickly. In November of 1938, following Kristallnacht, the House of Commons had approved a measure to allow entry into Britain of refugees under 17 years of age, provided they had a place to stay. Efforts were already underway in Germany ((The famous “Kindertransport” program) but not in Czechoslovakia. Winton and six other people (Doreen Warriner, Trevor Chadwick, Nicholas Stopford, Beatrice Wellington, Joseph Pike and Bill Barazetti) set up shop at a dining room table in their hotel in Wenceslas Square in Prague. His team met terrified parents desperate to get their children to safety, although it meant surrendering them to strangers in a foreign land.
Back in England, his mother had photos of the children printed, and appealed for funds and foster homes in newspaper ads and church bulletins. Hundreds of families volunteered to take children and others gave money, although not enough to cover all of the expenses; Winton made up the difference himself.
On March 14, 1939, it all came together and the trains began leaving Prague. The dangers were immense. Winton and his team had to forge documents and bribe officials. They were often trailed by Gestapo agents. All together, they succeeded in putting together eight trains with over 900 children. But only seven of the trains made it through About 250 children were on the last train on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland and sealed the borders. Winton’s rescue efforts came to an end and he fled Prague. The total rescued was 669. Of the other 250 children, trapped when the borders closed, only two survived the war.
Winton went on to live a full life and died in 2015 at the age of 106. (Wikipedia contains his full biography.) Years later, he was re-united with many of the children he saved.
Winton received extraordinary recognition late in his life for events that had transpired half a century earlier: in 2003, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. There are statues of Winton at both the Prague railway station and the Liverpool Street Station (dedicated by MP and now Prime Minister Theresa May). In 2008, the Czech Republic nominated Winton for the Nobel Peace Prize and later awarded him the “Order of the White Lion,” the Republic’s highest honor, in a ceremony presided over by Czech President Milos Zeman. In 2009, on the 70th anniversary of the last train from Prague, the trip was re-created in his honor: a special “Winton train” composed of 1930s locomotives and cars left Prague Main following the original Kindertransport route. On board were several surviving “Winton children” and their descendants. They were welcomed by Winton when they arrived in London. He has been the subject of three documentary films and numerous other tributes, including receipt of the Wallenberg Medal in 2013 from the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.
A little-known fact was that Winton was born of Jewish parents who emigrated to England in 1909 from Germany. He was baptized as a Christian by his parents, who changed their name from Wertheim to Winton. As a result, he did not qualify for recognition at Yad Vashem’s garden of the “Righteous Among the Nations.”
At the time of his death, the tributes flowed: from Prime Minister David Cameron, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sachs, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, who called him “one of the true heroes of our time.” Of all the tributes, I personally liked the one from his son Nick:
“My father’s legacy is about encouraging people to make a difference and not waiting for something to be done or waiting for someone else to do it.”
R.I.P. Sir Nicholas. While you had a long lifetime of good deeds,
the measure of your greatness was defined by eight months in 1938-1939 when you answered the call and did what you could do to help the truly helpless. — Jim