Forgotten History-Nicholas Winton an unsung Hero

It is often said that only the good die young and the evil seem to live forever, and for a long time I believed this to be true, looking at how old some of the escaped War Criminals got. But then I heard of Nicholas Winton, he died 1 July 2015 at the old age of 106. This man was the personification of good.

I first came across the story of Nicholas Winton in 1988 where the BBC had a special broadcast of “That’s life” in honor of  Mr Winton, which I found a bit odd because the show was notable for presenting hard-hitting investigations alongside satire and occasional light entertainment, and not so much a show where they honored people. That was more for “This is your life” but I was a lot younger then and did not really understand the relevance at the time.

Sir Nicholas George Winton MBE (born Nicholas George Wertheim; 19 May 1909 – 1 July 2015) was a British humanitarian who organized the rescue of 669 children, most of them Jewish, from Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Second World War in an operation later known as the Czech Kindertransport (German for “children transportation”). Winton found homes for the children and arranged for their safe passage to Britain.The world found out about his work over 40 years later, in 1988. The British press 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 (1st class), by Czech President Miloš Zeman.

In December 1938, Martin Blake, a friend and an instructional master at the Westminster School in London, asked Winton to forego his planned ski vacation and visit him in Czechoslovakia, where he had traveled in his capacity as an associate of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia. This committee had been established in October 1938 to provide assistance for refugees created by the German annexation of the Sudeten regions under the terms of the Munich Pact. Convinced that a European war was imminent, Winton decided to go. In Prague, Blake introduced Winton to his colleague, Doreen Wariner, and arranged for him to visit refugee camps filled to capacity with Jews and political opponents from the Sudetenland.

After Munich, Winton had been certain that the Germans would occupy the rest of Bohemia and Moravia before long. He had been alarmed further by the violence against the Jewish community in Germany and Austria during the Kristallnacht riots in November 1938.

 

When he heard of subsequent efforts of Jewish agencies in Britain to rescue German and Austrian Jewish children on the so-called Kindertransport, an effort that eventually brought about 10,000 unaccompanied children to safety in Great Britain, Winton summoned a small group of people to organize a similar rescue operation for children imperiled by the impending German dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in March 1939

Winton immediately established a Children’s Section and, using the name of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, initially without authorization, began taking applications from parents at his hotel in Prague. As his operation expanded, he opened an office in central Prague. Soon, thousands of parents lined up outside of Winton’s Children Section’s office seeking a safe haven for their children.

Winton returned to London to organize the rescue operation on that end. He raised money to fund the transports of the children and the 50 pound per child guarantee demanded by the British government to fund the children’s eventual departure from Britain. He also had to find British families willing to care for the refugee children. By day, Winton worked at his regular job on the Stock Exchange, and then devoted late afternoons and evenings to his rescue efforts. He made a great effort to raise money and find foster homes to bring as many children as possible to safety.

An important obstacle was getting official permission to cross into the Netherlands, as the children were to embark on the ferry at Hoek van Holland. After Kristallnacht in November 1938, the Dutch government officially closed its borders to any Jewish refugees. The border guards, marechaussees, searched for them and returned any found to Germany, despite the horrors ofKristallnacht being well known.

Winton succeeded, thanks to the guarantees he had obtained from Britain. After the first train, the process of crossing the Netherlands went smoothly.Winton ultimately found homes in Britain for 669 children, many of whose parents would perish in the Auschwitz concentration camp.His mother worked with him to place the children in homes and later hostels.Throughout the summer of 1939, he placed photographs of the children in Picture Post seeking families to accept them.

He also wrote to US politicians such as Roosevelt, asking them for haven for more children.

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He said that two thousand more might have been saved if they had helped but only Sweden took any besides those sent to Britain.The last group of 250, scheduled to leave Prague on 1 September 1939, were unable to depart. With Hitler’s invasion of Poland on the same day, the Second World War had begun.Nearly all of the children in that group perished during the war.

The first transport of children organized by Winton left Prague by plane for London on March 14, 1939, the day before the Germans occupied the Czech lands. After the Germans established a Protectorate in the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, Winton organized seven further transports that departed by rail out of Prague and across Germany to the Atlantic Coast, then by ship across the English Channel to Britain. At the train station in London, British foster parents waited to collect the children. The last trainload of children left Prague on August 2, 1939. Rescue activities ceased when Germany invaded Poland and Britain declared war in Germany in early September 1939.

The total number of children rescued through Winton’s efforts is not yet certain. According to a scrapbook he kept, 664 children came to Great Britain on transports that he organized. In the research compiled for the documentary “The Power of Good: Nicholas Winton,” aired on Czech television in 2002, researchers identified five additional persons who entered Britain on a Winton-financed transport, bringing the official number to 669 children. The available information indicates that some children who were rescued have not yet been identified.

After the war, Nicholas Winton’s rescue efforts remained virtually unknown. It was not until 1988, when his wife Grete found a scrapbook from 1939 with all the children’s photos and a complete list of names of those rescued that Winton’s rescue efforts became known. Winton since received a letter of thanks from the late Ezer Weizman, former president of the State of Israel, and was made an honorary citizen of Prague in the independent Czech Republic. In 2002, Winton received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II for his services to humanity.

A statue of Winton stands on Platform 1 of the Praha hlavní nádraží railway station.Created by Flor Kent, it was unveiled on 1 September 2009 as part of a larger commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the last Kindertransport train.

800px-Wintons_Prague_memorial_by_Flor_Kent_-_1

Also on the 1st of September 2009 a special “Winton Train” set off from the Prague Main railway station. The train, composed of one or two steam locomotives (out of a set of six) and carriages used in the 1930s, headed to London via the original Kindertransport route. On board were several surviving “Winton children” and their descendants, who were welcomed by Winton in London. The occasion marked the 70th anniversary of the intended last Kindertransport, due to set off on 3 September 1939 but prevented by the outbreak of the Second World War. At the train’s departure, a memorial statue for Winton, designed by Flor Kent, was unveiled at the railway station.

1024px-Winton-Train-Headboard-London-Liverpool-St-Stn-20090904It just goes to show again that one man can make a difference.

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3 thoughts on “Forgotten History-Nicholas Winton an unsung Hero

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