The Reluctant Hero

Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” – Talmud Yerushalmi, Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:1

Nicholas Winton with one of the hundreds of Jewish Children whose lives he saved during World War II [Photo: Press Association, via Associated Press

Nicholas Winton with one of the hundreds of Jewish Children whose lives he saved during World War II [Photo: Press Association, via Associated Press]

On 1 July 2015, Sir Nicholas Winton died. You say that you have never heard of Nicholas Winton? That is not surprising given that this extraordinary man shunned the spotlight for many years until almost by accident his noble deeds were uncovered. He was a real hero – albeit a reluctant one – to about 670 children. If you have never heard of Nicholas Winton, let me take this opportunity to tell his inspiring story.

Nicholas Winton’s story is the story of an ordinary man who never asked to be thanked. It is the story of a man who did what he thought was his duty as a human being and a pacifist. In 1939, Nicholas Winton, a London stockbroker set about trying to save the doomed Jewish children of an about to be invaded Czechoslovakia. His efforts saved 669 of them. In 1939, there were some 15,000 Czech Jewish children in existence. By the end of World War Two in 1945 only 100 or so of those children were left alive plus the 669 who Nicholas Winton had managed to save and get to Great Britain before the European borders closed down.

In theory, Nicholas Winton could be considered one of the “righteous among the nations” – a term for a gentile who helped the Jewish people in their time of need. I say “in theory” because Nicholas Winton was born a Jew even though he did not practice his faith, nor did his family. He could not be bestowed with the honor of being designated “righteous among the nations” by the Israeli government because he was Jewish in the eyes of Jewish law. But he could be recognized and acknowledged by those whom he helped save. And he was. [Winton was born Nicholas George Wertheim in London on 19 May 1909, one of three children of Rudolf and Barbara [née Wertheimer] Wertheim. His parents were of German-Jewish origin but converted to Christianity and changed the family name to Winton.]

The story begins in December 1938. Nicholas Winton, a twenty-nine-year-old London stockbroker, was about to leave for a skiing holiday in Switzerland when he received a phone call from his friend Martin Blake asking him to cancel his holiday and immediately come to Prague: “I have a most interesting assignment and I need your help. Don’t bother bringing your skis.” When Winton arrived, Blake asked him to help in the camps, in which thousands of refugees were living in appalling conditions.

The pogroms of Kristallnacht had recently struck Jewish shops, homes and synagogues in Germany and Austria. Kristallnacht was a pogrom (a series of coordinated deadly attacks) against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and Austria on 9–10 November 1938, carried out by Sturmabteilung [SA] paramilitary forces and non-Jewish civilians. German authorities looked on without intervening. The name Kristallnacht refers to the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues had their windows smashed. Kristallnacht  is also known as “The Night of Broken Glass.” War looked inevitable, and escape, especially for children, seemed hopeless, given the restrictions against Jewish immigration in the West.

Kindertransport Memorial outside Liverpool Street Station, London, by Frank Meister (2006)

Kindertransport Memorial outside Liverpool Street Station, London, by Frank Meister (2006)

Great Britain, however, was an exception. It agreed to admit unaccompanied Jewish children up to age seventeen if they had a host family, with the offer of a £50 warranty for an eventual return ticket. In late 1938, Great Britain began a program, called Kindertransport, (children transport) a rescue mission that took place during the nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. Often these children were the only members of their families who survived the Holocaust.

But there was no comparable mass-rescue effort in Czechoslovakia, so Nicholas Winton created one. His plan involved dangers, bribes, forgery, secret contacts with the Gestapo, nine railroad trains, an avalanche of paperwork, and a lot of money. Nazi agents started following Winton. In his Prague hotel room, he met terrified parents desperate to get their children to safety, although it meant surrendering them to strangers in a foreign land.

Independently of Operation Kindertransport, Nicholas Winton set up his own rescue operation. At first, Winton’s office was a dining room table at his hotel in Wenceslas Square in Prague. Anxious parents, who gradually came to understand the danger they and their children faced, came to Winton and placed the future of their children in his hands. As their numbers grew, a storefront office was opened on Vorsilska Street, under the charge of Trevor Chadwick. Thousands of parents heard about this unique endeavor and long lines attracted Gestapo attention. Perilous confrontations were resolved with bribes. Eventually, Winton registered more than 900 children, although he had names and details on over 5,000.

In early 1939, Winton left his two friends, Trevor Chadwick and Bill Barazetti in charge in Prague. Because he wanted to save the lives of as many of the endangered children as possible, Winton returned to London and planned for the transport of children to Great Britain. He worked at his regular job on the Stock Exchange by day, and then devoted late afternoons and evenings to his rescue efforts, often working far into the night. He and a few volunteers, including his mother, calling themselves The British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, Children’s Section, enlisted aid from the Refugee Children’s Movement, had photos of the children printed and appealed for funds and foster homes in newspaper ads and church and synagogue bulletins.

Winton contacted the governments of nations he thought could take in the children. Only Sweden and his own government said yes. Great Britain promised to accept children under the age of eighteen as long as he found homes and guarantors who could deposit £50 for each child to pay for their return home.

Hundreds of families volunteered to take children, and money trickled in from donors – not enough to cover all the costs, but Winton made up the difference himself. He also appealed to the Home Office for entry visas, but the response was slow and time was short. So Winton forged the Home Office entry permits.

Meanwhile, in Prague, Trevor Chadwick quietly cultivated the chief of the Gestapo, Karl Bömelburg and arranged for forged transit papers and bribes to be passed to key Nazis and Czech railway officials, who threatened to halt trains or seize the children unless they were paid off. The Gestapo chief proved instrumental, clearing the trains and transit papers.

Winton sent more money, some for bribes and some to cover expenses for children whose parents had been arrested and shot or who had fled into hiding, while many of the Czech families sold possessions to pay for their children’s escape. The red tape and the paperwork seemed endless.

But on 14 March 1939, it all came together. Just hours before Adolf Hitler made the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia German Protectorates, the first twenty children left Prague on a train. Survivors told of heart-rending scenes on the station platform in the final moments before departure as children sobbed and pleaded not to be sent away and weeping parents faced giving up their children and probably never seeing them again.

Winton and his colleagues later arranged for eight more trains to get the rest of the children out, crossing the Third Reich through Nuremberg and Cologne to the Hook of Holland (a town in the western Netherlands), then across the North Sea by boat to Harwich, Essex, and finally, by British rail to the Liverpool Street Station in London. There, he and the host families met the children. Each refugee had a small bag and wore a name tag.

Jewish refugee children arrive in London in February 1939 [Photo: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images]

Jewish refugee children arrive in London in February 1939 [Photo: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images]

But only seven of the eight trains made it through, the last train in early August, bringing the total rescued to 669. About 250 children, the largest group, were on board the last train out, on 1 September 1939. On that day, however, Hitler invaded Poland, all borders controlled by Germany were closed and Winton’s rescue efforts came to an end. There were 250 families waiting at Liverpool Street Station 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. All are believed to have perished in Nazi concentration camps. [On 1 September 2009, seventy years after the onset of the war halted the rescue operations, a special train with a locomotive and carriages from the 1930s left Prague to re-create those perilous 1939 journeys. On board, were some of the original children and many of their descendants, whose numbers now exceed 6,000.]

Nearly all the saved children were orphans by war’s end, their parents killed at Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, or Terezin (Theresienstadt.) After the war, many remained in Britain, but others returned to Czechoslovakia or emigrated to Israel, Australia, or the United States. The rescued children, many now grandparents, still refer to themselves as “Winton’s children.” Among those saved were the British film director Karel Reisz (The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Isadora, Sweet Dreams, and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning); Canadian journalist and news correspondent for CBC, Joe Schlesinger (originally from Slovakia); Alf Dubs, Lord Dubs (a former Minister in Tony Blair’s Labor Cabinet); Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines (a patron of the arts whose father, Rudolf Fleischmann, saved German and anti-Nazi novelist, Thomas Mann from the Nazis); Dagmar Šimová (a cousin of the former United States Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright); Tom Schrecker, (a Reader’s Digest manager); Hugo Marom (a famous aviation consultant, and one of the founders of the Israeli Air Force); Renata Laxová, a geneticist who discovered the Neu-Laxová Syndrome, a congenital abnormality; and Vera Gissing (author of Pearls of Childhood and coauthor of Nicholas Winton and the Rescued Generation.) Until his death, Winton wore a ring given to him by some of the children he saved. It was inscribed with a line from the Talmud, the book of Jewish law. It reads: Save one life, save the world.

For fifty years, Winton said nothing of the children’s rescue, not even to his wife. But in 1988, after finding his long-hidden scrapbook, his story came to light. In that dusty old book were the records of names, pictures letters from families, travel documents, notes crediting his colleagues, and documents detailing a story of redemption from the Holocaust. It was then that Winton spoke of his all-but-forgotten work in the deliverance of children who, like the parents who gave them up to save their lives, were destined for Nazi concentration camps and certain extermination.

Winton’s wife Grete [née Gjelstrup], a Dane whom he married in 1948, asked him for an explanation and Winton gave her a general idea, but said he thought the papers had no value and suggested discarding them. “You can’t throw those papers away,” she responded. “They are children’s lives.”

Winton’s wife took the scrapbook to Holocaust-studies expert Dr. Elisabeth Maxwell and told her Winton’s remarkable story. Dr. Maxwell related Winton’s story to her husband, Czechoslovak-born newspaper mogul Robert Maxwell, and soon the London-based tabloid the Sunday Mirror was headlining and hailing Winton as “Britain’s Oskar Schindler.” The scrapbook and other material is now kept with Yad Vashem, Israel’s  official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, located on the western slope of Mount Herzl on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem.

By all accounts, Nicholas Winton – Sir Nicholas in the United Kingdom since 2003, when he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for “services to humanity” – was an incredibly modest man who did not want to brag about what he did and was often stunned by the accolades he received for his actions.

For all his ensuing honors and accolades, Nicholas Winton was a reluctant hero, often compared to Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved 1,200 Jews by employing them in his enamelware and munitions factories in Poland and Czechoslovakia, and to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish businessman and diplomat who used illegal passports and legation hideaways to save tens of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary.

Nicholas Winton’s story ended on 1 July 2015 with his death at Wexham Hospital in Slough from respiratory failure, with his daughter Barbara and two grandchildren at his bedside [His wife, Grete, died in 1999]. Winton died seventy-six years to the day, on the anniversary of the largest train load that saved 241 children. He was 106 years old.

Here, once again, is proof that the good do not necessarily die young.

The Nobel Prize recipient and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, a man who has dedicated his life to ensuring that none of us forget what happened to the Jews at the hands of the Nazis, wrote these words that could easily describe Nicholas Winton:

“In those times there was darkness everywhere. In heaven and on earth, all the gates of compassion seemed to have been closed. The killer killed and the Jews died and the outside world adopted an attitude either of complicity or of indifference. Only a few had the courage to care. These few men and women were vulnerable, afraid, helpless – what made them different from their fellow citizens?… Why were there so few?… Let us remember: What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of the bystander…. Let us not forget, after all, there is always a moment when moral choice is made…. And so we must know these good people who helped Jews during the Holocaust. We must learn from them, and in gratitude and hope, we must remember them.”

Nicholas Winton was one of those good people. And now you know his story.

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