Please read and watch – I defy you to not shed a tear.
Sir Nicholas George Winton, MBE is a British humanitarian who organised the rescue of 669, mostly Jewish, children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Second World War, in an operation later known as the Czech Kindertransport. Winton found homes for the children and arranged for their safe passage to Britain. The UK press has dubbed him the “British Schindler”. On 28 October 2014 he was awarded the highest honour of the Czech Republic, the Order of the White Lion, by Czech President Miloš Zeman.
Nicholas Winton was born on 19 May 1909 in Hampstead, London, a son of German Jewish parents who had moved to London two years earlier. The family name was Wertheim, but they changed it to Winton in an effort at integration. They also converted to Christianity, and Winton was baptised.
In 1923, Winton entered Stowe School, which had just opened. He left without graduating, attending night school while volunteering at the Midland Bank. He then went to Hamburg, where he worked at Behrens Bank, followed by Wasserman Bank in Berlin. In 1931, he moved to France and worked for the Banque Nationale de Crédit in Paris. He also earned a banking qualification in France. Returning to London, he became a broker at the London Stock Exchange. Though a stockbroker, Winton was also “an ardent socialist who became close to Labour Party luminaries Aneurin Bevan, Jennie Lee and Tom Driberg.” Through another socialist friend, Martin Blake, Winton became part of a left-wing circle opposed to appeasement and concerned about the dangers posed by the Nazis.
Shortly before Christmas 1938, Winton was planning to travel to Switzerland for a skiing holiday. He decided instead to visit Prague and help Martin Blake, who was in Prague as an associate of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, and had called Winton to ask him to assist in Jewish welfare work. Winton single-handedly established an organisation to aid children from Jewish families at risk from the Nazis. He set up his office at a dining room table in his hotel in Wenceslas Square. In November 1938, following the Kristallnacht in Nazi-ruled Germany, the House of Commons approved a measure to allow the entry into Britain of refugees younger than 17, provided they had a place to stay and a warranty of £50 was deposited for their eventual return to their own country.
An important obstacle was getting official permission to cross into the Netherlands, as the children were destined to embark on the ferry at Hook of Holland. After the Kristallnacht in November 1938, the Dutch government officially closed its borders to any Jewish refugees. The border guards, marechaussee, searched for them and returned any found to Germany, despite the horrors of Kristallnacht being well known: from the border, the synagogue in Aachen could be seen burning just 3 miles away.
Winton succeeded, thanks to the guarantees he had obtained from Britain. After the first train, crossing the Netherlands went smoothly. A Dutch woman, Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer saved another 1000 Jewish children, mostly from Vienna and Berlin via the Hook, though it is not known whether she and Winton ever met. In 2012, a statue was erected on the quay at the Hook to commemorate all who had saved Jewish children.
Winton found homes in Britain for 669 children, many of whose parents would perish in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Winton’s mother worked with him to place the children in homes and later hostels. Throughout the summer, Winton placed advertisements seeking families to accept them. The last group of 250, scheduled to leave Prague on 1 September 1939, did not reach safety. Hitler had invaded Poland and the Second World War had begun.
Winton kept quiet about his humanitarian exploits for many years, until his wife Grete found a detailed scrapbook in their attic in 1988. It contained lists of the children, including their parents’ names, and the names and addresses of the families that took them in. By sending letters to these addresses, 80 of “Winton’s children” were found in Britain. The world found out about his work in 1988 during an episode of the BBC television programme That’s Life! when he was invited as a member of the audience. At one point Winton’s scrapbook was shown, and his achievements were explained. The host of the programme, Esther Rantzen, asked whether any in the audience owed their lives to Winton, and, if so, to stand – more than two dozen people surrounding Winton rose and applauded.
As do I.