Nicholas Winton: Quiet Hero

Nicholas Winton, a 29 year- old clerk in the London Stock Exchange, was getting ready for a ski vacation in Switzerland in December, 1938. His friend, Martin Blake, called him from Prague and said, “Don’t bother to bring your skis.” He was aiding refugees in the western section of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland , that had just been taken over by Germany. When Winton arrived there, he found huge camps filled with Jews who had fled Germany and Austria after Kristallnacht, “ The Night of Broken Glass”.

On that night, November 9-10, 1938, Jewish homes, shops and synagogues throughout Germany and Austria were invaded and smashed by Nazi paramilitary. They dragged Jewish men and women into the streets where they were beaten, some fatally. One thousand synagogues were burned; seven thousand businesses destroyed. Shards of broken glass littered city streets. Thirty thousand men, woman and children were arrested and shipped to camps, later to grow into the infamous concentration camps during World War II.

In late 1938, Britain had begun a program, Kindertransport, to admit unaccompanied Jewish children up to age l7 if there was a British family who would take them. There was an offer of 50 pounds as a warranty for a return ticket eventually. The Refugee Children’s Movement in Britain sent representatives to Germany and Austria, resulting in 10,000 Jewish children being saved before the war began. However, there was no organized effort to save the children in Czechoslovakia when Nicholas Winton arrived. With the help of several friends, he created one. At first, he met desperate parents in his hotel room in Prague. They had heard he would try to get their children to safety in Britain. As numbers grew, he opened a store front office and long lines attracted Gestapo interest. He used bribery to deflect Nazi interference and eventually registered more than 900 children with the necessary paper work.

In early 1939, he left two friends, Trevor Chadwick and Bill Barazetti to run the Prague office and returned to London to raise money, find foster homes and arrange transportation. With the help of his mother and a few volunteers, he sought aid from the Refugee Children’s Movement. Photos of the children were printed and used to appeal for funds and foster homes in newspaper ads in church and synagogue bulletins. Hundreds of families volunteered to take the children and some money came from donors. Winton added to meet the costs. Next, he appealed to the Home Office for the necessary entry visas. When their response was slow with time running out in Prague, he later wrote, “This was a few months before the war broke out. So we forged the Home Office entry permits.”

Meanwhile, in Prague, Trevor Chadwick had made friends with the chief of the Gestapo and arranged for forged transit papers and bribes to be passed to key Nazi and Czech railway officials who had threatened to halt the trains and seize the children unless money was received. This cloak and dagger maneuver worked when Winton continued to send money for the bribes and to cover expenses for children whose parents had been arrested and shot. Other families sold possessions to pay for their children’s escape. In Britain, the bureaucracy red tape and paperwork went on every day. On March 14, 1939, the first train with twenty children left Prague as their parents sobbed and faced never seeing them again.

Winton and his friends arranged for eight more trains to take the children through Nuremberg and Cologne in Germany to the Hook of Holland. From there, they crossed the North Sea by boat to Harwich, Essex and finally by British rail to Liverpool Station in London. Winton and the host families were waiting. Each refugee child wore a name tag and carried a small bag. Only seven trains made it through the entire journey from Prague to London. The last train with almost 250 children, the largest group, was set to leave on September 1, 1939, the day Hitler invaded Poland. All borders controlled by Germany were closed and Winton’s massive rescue plan was over. In later years, Winton recalled, “Within hours of the announcement, the train disappeared. None of the 250 children aboard were ever seen again.” All were believed to have died in the concentration camps.

Six hundred and sixty nine children were saved by Nicholas Winton and his friends. Almost all were orphans by the end of the war; their parents killed at Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt in The Holocaust. After the war, many stayed in Britain, while others emigrated to Israel, Australia and the United States. Nicholas Winton served in the Royal Air Force (R.A.F.) during the war and later worked for refugee organizations and a charity that assisted the elderly. In l983, he received the O.B.E. , the Order of the British Empire for his charity work.

But his work in saving the 669 Jewish children of Czechoslovakia was never known for fifty years! He never said anything to anyone, including his wife Grete, a Dane whom he married in 1948. By accident, in l998, Grete found Winton’s long-hidden scrapbook in their attic, filled with names, pictures, letters from families, travel documents and notes crediting his colleagues. When Grete asked him to explain, he gave her a general answer, but thought the papers had no value and suggested she throw them away. She responded, “You can’t throw those papers away. They are children’s lives.” Winton recalled, “I did not think for one moment that they would be of interest to anyone so long after it happened.”

Grete gave the scrapbook to a Holocaust historian. A newspaper article told the story. Then it was featured on the BBC and spread worldwide. Winton received the Czech Republic’s highest award, honorary citizenship, an American Congressional resolution, letters of appreciation from U.S. President George W. Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, President Ezer Weizman of Israel and people all over the world. His scrapbook rests in Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Israel, where streets and schools are named for him. Statues went up in Prague and London.

On Nicholas Winton’s 100th birthday, the “Winton Train, Prague.– London” arrived at Liverpool station to honor him. Survivors, who call themselves ‘Winton’s Children’, and some of their six thousand descendants were on the train to celebrate his birthday and his deeds. Pictures show him vigorously welcoming them as he welcomed some of the original children more than fifty years ago. A quiet hero, Nicholas Winton died on July 1, 2015 at the age of 106 years. His name lives in blessed memory around the world. His daughter, Barbara Winton spoke of her father’s wartime heroism, “He believed that if there was something that had to be done, you should do it. Let’s not spend too long agonizing about stuff. Let’s get it done.”

4 thoughts on “Nicholas Winton: Quiet Hero

  1. Mom thank you for capturing this most remarkable story of Nicholas WInton !!! An incredible hero for so many children and generations to come.

  2. What an inspiring story – and he lived to 106! Quite amazing that he thought no one would be interested in what he did to save so many children. I enjoying reading about Nicolas Winton. The question is why did he feel he had such a responsibility and what gave him the strength to act on his belief?

  3. Another compelling narrative filled with great meaning and significance. Thanks for writing about Nicolas Winton and the children he saved.

  4. I once watched a documentary on Nicholas Winton and the magnificent work he did in his life. I have never forgotten his story,, and it was so good reading your blog as a reminder of the Titans that live among us in this world.

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