Even 70+years after the Holocaust, we are continually discovering the exploits of people, Jews and non-Jews alike, who exhibited remarkable bravery and ingenuity to rescue Jews from the clutches of the Nazis before and during WWII. Sadly, in many cases, these exploits have only become known posthumously. Such is the case of Nicholas Winton, a Briton who orchestrated the rescue of 669 children on the eve of WWII. I know that amount is significantly fewer than the tens of thousands rescued by Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, or even the 1,200 that Oscar Schindler rescued, but it is still a significant number. Moreover, like many other heroes, Winton was living a comfortable, risk-free life; he didn’t have to do what he did. He did it because he felt strongly it was simply the right thing to do.
Nicholas George Wertheim was born on May 19, 1909 in Hampstead, London. He was the middle child between an older sister and a younger brother. His parents were German Jews who had emigrated from Germany in 1907. Once in England they converted to Christianity and changed the family name to Winton. This was not uncommon as many immigrants changed their name and or religion in an effort to “fit in.”
Nicholas’ family was wealthy. They lived in a 20-room mansion in West Hampstead, a relatively affluent area of London. As a youth, Winton was an outstanding fencer. In fact, he was good enough to make the British national team in 1938. He had hopes of making the 1940 Olympic team, but, as we know, those Games were cancelled due to WWII. Later in life, he established the Winton Cup, a prestigious competition in the sport.
Winton became a rescuer quite by accident. In December 1938 he was a successful stockbroker based in London. He was planning to go to Switzerland over Christmas on a skiing holiday, but on a whim, which would change not only his life but also world history, he decided to visit a friend, Martin Blake, in Czechoslovakia. Blake was working on behalf of an agency of the British government to assist refugees trying to flee the Sudetenland, which had been recently annexed by Germany. In extending the invitation to visit, Blake had advised Winton, “don’t bother to bring your skis.”
I’m not sure what Winton expected to find in Czechoslovakia, but I think it’s safe to say he was appalled and shocked by the situation. The German pogroms of the 1930’s, including the infamous “Kristallnacht,” had created vast refugee camps in which people were living in inhumane conditions – severe shortages of food, water, shelter and medicine. Starvation and disease were rampant. Relief agencies were trying to arrange transport to other countries like England, the US, and other “safe” countries, however, there were significant roadblocks, administrative, political and others.
Upon arrival, Winton quickly forgot about skiing, fencing, stockbroking and anything else. He threw himself into the problem at hand. He established an organization called Kindertransport to aid the children. His first “office” was a dining room table in his hotel room. The British government had agreed to grant refuge to children age 17 or younger provided that (1) they had a place to stay and (2) paid a fee of 50 pounds for an eventual return to their home country. (As I said, other countries had their own restrictions, some of which were quite onerous. There were various reasons for this, but I believe the two primary ones were anti-Semitism and a severe underestimation of the Nazis’ plan for the extermination of the Jews.)
At first, the relief agencies were focusing on refugees from Germany and Austria. There was no infrastructure in place for Czechs. Winton created one from scratch. It required diligence, ingenuity, a mountain of paperwork and a lot of money. The route to England was circuitous and fraught with danger. It involved travel by truck, train and boat through various neutral countries, such as Belgium, Holland and the Netherlands. It required the cooperation of various officials along the way, usually through bribes. Any misstep along the way would have resulted in the return to Germany and probable death.
He even created backchannels with and paid bribes to Gestapo agents to guarantee safe passage. One notable “ally” was Karl Bomelburg, the chief Gestapo agent in the area, aka “the criminal rat” (a play on his title, “kriminalrat).” In addition, his organization frequently had to forge various documents, such as entry permits and transit papers. Basically, Winton and his organization did whatever it took to achieve the goal of safe passage to England.
Ultimately, Winton was able to place 669 children in homes in Great Britain. Survivors have related the gut-wrenching scenes at the moment in which the children were actually separated from their parents. Tears flowed freely. Most of the children didn’t understand why they were being separated and were distraught. So were the parents, but deep down they realized they were likely saving their children’s lives. Most of these parents perished in the camps, and after the war ended most of these children were orphans.
Sadly, of all the other governments Winton contacted only Sweden was willing to help. Winton was ready to transport thousands more, but Germany closed all borders on September 1, 1939 when it invaded Poland. On that date, a trainload of 250 persons was set to depart from Prague, but they never made it. According to Winton, the train simply “disappeared.” According to Wikipedia only two of the 250 survived the war. (The NY Times reported that none did. Tragic either way. )
Many of the children who did survive the war ended up remaining in England. Others returned to Czechoslovakia or emigrated to Israel, the US or other countries. But, wherever they ended up they remained truly grateful to Winton. They dubbed themselves “Winton’s Children.”
During and after the war, Winton continued to engage in relief work for various agencies. He married and raised a family. Like most people, he never liked to discuss his exploits during the war. They went unnoticed and unrecognized until 1988 when his wife accidently found a scrapbook in the attic. It contained a veritable treasure trove of information including detailed records of the names of the children and their parents, various travel documents, and the families with which the children were placed. She was stunned. She asked Nicholas about it. In a typical display of modesty, he pooh-poohed its significance. “I didn’t think for one moment they would be of any interest to anyone so long after it happened.” Her incredulous reply: “You can’t throw those papers away. They are children’s lives.”
Luckily, she prevailed. She sent the scrapbook to Elisabeth Maxwell, who was not only a noted Holocaust researcher but also the wife of media magnate Robert Maxwell. Soon, the secret was out.
Winton was the recipient of numerous honors (including knighthood), too many to mention here. In recogntion of his accomplishments the British media nicknamed him the “British Schindler,” a high honor indeed. Furthermore, he and his exploits have been the subject of several films.
As a final tribute, on September 1, 2009 on the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the war a final “Winton Train” departed Prague for London where it met Winton. It followed the original Kindertransport route. On board were several “Winton Children” and their descendants. A nice reunion and a fitting tribute.
Nicholas Winton passed away on July 1, 2015 at the remarkable age of 106. Rest in peace, Nicholas. You were a remarkable person. Your memory will live on forever through the descendants of your “children.”