Nicholas Winton was a young British stockbroker who rescued 669 Czech Jewish children from being sent to Nazi death camps. He never told anybody of his heroism, and the story only came out 50 years later after his wife found an old briefcase in the attic containing lists of children he’d saved.
Nicholas was a 29 year old clerk at the London stock exchange getting ready for a ski trip to Switzerland when he received an urgent call from his friend Martin Blake. Known to be passionately opposed to Nazism, Martin urged Nicholas to cancel his vacation and come to Prague immediately. He told Nicolas, “I have a most interesting assignment and I need your help. Don’t bother bringing your skis.”
It is a testament to Nicolas’ sterling character and strong moral compass that he didn’t waver for a moment. It was an easy decision to sacrifice his fun and relaxing ski trip and instead travel to a dangerous place on a mysterious mission.
Two months earlier, in October 1938, Nazi Germany had annexed the Sudetenland It was clear that the Nazis would soon occupy all of Czechoslovakia. When he reached Prague, Nicholas was shocked by the huge influx of refugees fleeing from the Nazis. In early November, the Kristallnacht pogrom occurred in Germany and Austria. Jews were killed in the street and hundreds of synagogues burned down, as well as Jewish-owned businesses. This horrifying event shocked the Jewish community in eastern Europe, and thousands were now desperate to flee.
Born to Jewish parents, Nicholas was actually Jewish himself. However, his parents changed their name from Wertheim and converted to Christianity before he was born. Nicholas was baptized and raised as a Christian, and he didn’t consider himself Jewish (although was doubtless aware that Hitler would.)
In Prague, organizations were springing up to help sick and elderly refugees, but Nicholas noticed that nobody was trying to help the children. In his words, “I found out that the children of refugees and other groups of people who were enemies of Hitler weren’t being looked after. I decided to try to get permits to Britain for them. I found out that the conditions which were laid down for bringing in a child were chiefly that you had a family that was willing and able to look after the child, and fifty pounds, which was quite a large sum of money in those days, that was to be deposited at the Home Office. The situation was heartbreaking. Many of the refugees hadn’t the price of a meal. Some of the mothers tried desperately to get money to buy food for themselves and their children. The parents desperately wanted at least to get their children to safety when they couldn’t manage to get visas for the whole family. I began to realize what suffering there is when armies start to march.”
Nicholas knew something had to be done, and he decided to be the one to do it. He later remembered, “Everybody in Prague said, ‘Look, there is no organization in Prague to deal with refugee children, nobody will let the children go on their own, but if you want to have a go, have a go.’ And I think there is nothing that can’t be done if it is fundamentally reasonable.”
Nicholas decided to find homes for the children in the UK, where they would be safe. He set up a command center in his hotel room in Wenceslas Square and his first step was to contact the refugee offices of different national governments and see how many children they could accept. Only two countries agreed to take any Jewish children: Sweden and Great Britain, which pledged to accept all children under age 18 as long as they had homes and fifty pounds to pay for their trip home.
With this green light from Great Britain, Nicholas did everything possible to find homes for the children. He returned to London and did much of the planning from there, which enabled him to continue working at the Stock Exchange and soliciting funds from other bankers to pay for his work with the refugees. Winton needed a large amount of money to pay for transportation costs, foster homes, and many other necessities such as food and medicine.
Nicholas placed ads in newspapers large and small all over Great Britain, as well as in hundreds of church and synagogue newsletters. Knowing he had to play on people’s emotions to convince them to open their home to young strangers who didn’t even speak English, Nicholas printed flyers with pictures of children seeking refuge. He was tireless in his efforts and persuaded an incredible number of heroic Brits to welcome the traumatized young refugees into their homes and hearts.
The office in Wenceslas Square was manned by fellow Brit Trevor Chadwick. Every day terrified parents came in and begged him to find temporary homes for their children. Despite Nicholas’ success in finding places for the kids to stay, British and German government bureaucrats made things difficult, demanding multiple forms and documents. Nicholas said, “Officials at the Home Office worked very slowly with the entry visas. We went to them urgently asking for permits, only to be told languidly, ‘Why rush, old boy? Nothing will happen in Europe.’ This was a few months before the war broke out. So we forged the Home Office entry permits.”
The first transport of children boarded airplanes in Prague which took them to Britain. Nicholas organized an amazing seven more transports, all of them by train, and then boat across the English Channel. The children met their foster families at the train station and Winton took great care in making the matches between children and foster parents.
The children’s transport organized by Nicholas Winton was similar to the later, larger Kindertransport operation, but specifically for Czech Jewish children. Nicholas saved an astounding 669 children on eight transports. Tragically, the largest transport of all was scheduled for September 1, 1939 – but on that day, Hitler invaded Poland and all borders were closed by Germany. Winton was haunted for decades by the remembrance of the 250 children he last saw boarding the train. “Within hours of the announcement, the train disappeared. None of the 250 children aboard was seen again. We had 250 families waiting at Liverpool Street 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, which is an awful feeling.”
Nicholas joined the British military and spent the rest of the war serving as a pilot in the Royal Air Force, attaining the rank of Flight Lieutenant. After the war, Nicholas worked for the International Refugee Organization in Paris, where he met and married Grete Gjelstrup, a Danish secretary. They moved to Maidenhead, in Great Britain, and had three children. Their youngest child, Robin, had Down Syndrome, and at that time children with the condition were usually sent to institutions. However Nicholas and Grete wouldn’t consider it and instead kept their son at home with the family. Tragically, Robin died of meningitis the day before his sixth birthday. Nicholas was devastated by the loss, and became an active volunteer with Mencap, a charity to help people with Down Syndrome and other developmental delays. He remained involved in Mencap for over fifty years.
Humble – and perhaps traumatized by the children on the train he wasn’t able to save – Nicholas rarely talked about his wartime heroism and his own family didn’t know the details. It was only in 1988 that Nicholas Winton became widely known. His wife found an old notebook of his containing lists of the children he saved. Working with a Holocaust researcher, she tracked down some of the children and located eighty of them still living in Britain. These grown children, some with grandchildren, found out for the first time who had saved them.
The BBC television show called That’s Life! invited Nicholas to the filming an episode that became one of the most emotional clips in TV history. With Nicholas in the audience, the host told his story, including photos and details about some of the children he’d saved. Then the told Nicholas that one of those children was the woman in the seat next to him! They embraced, teary eyed, and the host announced there were more grown children in the audience as well. She asked everybody who owed their life to Nicholas Winton to stand up. The entire audience stood up, as Nicholas sat stunned, wiping away the tears.
After that, Nicholas was showered with honors, including a knighthood for services to humanity. Known as the British Schindler, he met the Queen multiple times and received the Pride of Britain Award for Lifetime Achievement, both for saving refugee children and working with Mencap to improve the lives of people with cognitive differences. There are multiple statues of him in Prague and the UK, and his story was the subject of three films.
Nicholas Winton died in Britain in July 2015, at age 106. Today there are tens of thousands of people who owe their lives to Nicholas Winton.
For saving hundreds of Jewish children, we honor Nicholas Winton as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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