Nicholas Winton, (originally Nicholas Wertheim), was born on May 19, 1909, in London. He was born to German-Jewish parents who moved to England in 1907. They changed their last name in order to assimilate, and later converted to Christianity. They also had Nicholas baptized.
Winton was a highly educated man and became a London stockbroker. At age 29, in 1938, he was planning to take a skiing vacation in Switzerland during the Christmas holiday, when he received a call from his friend Martin Blake telling him to cancel. “Come to Prague; I have an interesting assignment and need your help”, Blake pleaded [paraphrasing]. Winton cancelled his trip and went to visit his friend, who was working with Jewish refugees.
Winton was appalled at the terrible treatment of the Jews. He was already convinced that war was inevitable after the Nazis had annexed Sudetenland in October, 1928, in accordance with the Munich Pact. He was certain that the rest of the country would follow.
After the November Kristallnacht, Jewish agencies set up a Kindertransport, enabling German and Austrian children to obtain safe haven in the UK. But there was no such program for the children in Czechoslovakia.
Although the British House of Commons passed a law allowing families to enter the UK, it required them to pay a guarantee of 50 pounds per person for the cost of anticipated repatriation. The fee amounted to a small fortune for many of the families who were so poor that they struggled to eat. Those who couldn’t afford to relocate their entire family desired to at least secure their children, but nobody in Prague would allow children to leave by themselves.
Winton decided to set up a rescue operation, called, “The British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, Children’s Section”. Originally, his office consisted of a dining room table in his hotel. Families rushed to his office, often waiting in long lines, pleading with Winton to place their children on his list. Later he moved his office to central Prague, where the committee consisted of him, his mother, a secretary, and a few volunteers to help. They raised money to pay the 50 pound fees and the costs of transportation. Winton stayed at the new office for only a few weeks before appointing others to carry out the day-to-day operations while he returned to London to find the children homes. He placed advertisements in British newspapers, churches and synagogues, often displaying photos of the children in order to make a greater appeal. He contacted numerous countries asking them to accept the children but only the UK and Sweden responded. Then, the British Home Office dilly-dallied in providing visas, believing no harm would come to Europe’s shores. Therefore, Winton’s office falsified the documents to expedite the process, which also increased the risks.
Beginning March 14, 1939, Winton’s operations began transporting children to their new homes, primarily in the UK. The first group left by plane, and seven trains followed. The last train, the largest group, with 250 children, never made it to safety. Hitler invaded Poland that day, and all borders controlled by Germany were closed. The children were never seen or heard from again, a vision that haunts Winton to this day.
However, to his credit, immediately prior to the war’s outbreak, Winton managed to save 669 children from certain death. Virtually none of the siblings or parents that these children left behind survived the Holocaust. Most were murdered in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
For decades, Winton kept his humanitarian efforts to himself. When he married, he didn’t even tell his wife!
Then, one day in 1988, his wife Grete, was rummaging through their attic. There, she found a scrapbook listing all the children Winton had saved, along with the names of their parents and the names of the homes to which they were sent. After sending out letters, 80 of the survivors responded, confirming the story. They became known as “Winton’s children.”
For 50 years, Winton’s children did not know who saved them nor had the world heard of Nicholas Winton. Then, BBC had a viewing of the TV show “That’s Life!”. Winton was invited to attend in the audience. During the event, the host revealed Winton’s scrapbook and extolled his altruistic efforts. The host announced that Vera Gissing was one of the people on Winton’s list and pointed her out in the audience, noting that she was seated next to Winton. They were thrilled to meet each other. Then, the host asked if there was anyone else in the room who owed their lives to Winton. One by one, approximately 24 people stood and gave him a standing ovation. Winton became teary-eyed. It was the first time he had seen them since they were children during the war.
Today, over 5000 surviving progeny are alive due to Winton’s sacrifices.
Winton was subsequently knighted by Queen Elizabeth, is an honorary citizen of Prague, was made a Member of the British Empire and awarded the Merit Cross by the Minister of Defense of Czechoslovakia. He also had an elementary school named after him in Czechoslovakia, a small planet named after him by astronomers, and thanks to a petition signed by 32,000 Czechoslovakian children, he was nominated as a Nobel Peace Prize candidate in 2008. Additionally, several plays were written about him, as were three films and two documentaries including, “The Power of Good: the case of Nicholas Winton”, which won an Emmy award.
September 1, 2009 marked the 70th anniversary of the final train of the Czechoslovakian Kindertransport. During the anniversary, a special “Winton Train” left the Prague train station and headed toward London. It consisted of the original locomotive and carriages from the Kindertransport and travelled the Kindertransport route. After the train departed, a statue of Winton was unveiled in his honor. Aboard the train were many that Winton had saved, as well as their children and grandchildren. When they arrived in London, they were greeted by Winton.
A total of 1.5 million children during the Holocaust were murdered in gas chambers, ovens, starved to death, heaped into mass graves (sometimes alive), and subjected to torturous diabolical “experiments”. Over 15,000 of them were Jewish Czechoslovakian children. Winton saved as many as possible from this fate.
Still, Winton maintains that his actions were commonplace and that he just did was the situation called for. He insists that he’s not a hero. But the rest of the world knows better. He is known in Europe as “the British Schindler”.
Winton’s scrapbook and other documents can be found at Yad Vashem in Israel. Winton is still alive and wears a ring given to him by some of the Winton children. It’s inscribed with a line from the Talmud, which reads: “Save one life; save the world”. He turns 105 years old today. Happy Birthday, Sir Nicholas Winton! May HaShem bless you and all the Winton’s children!
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