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In October 1938, after the ill-fated Munich Agreement between Germany and the Western European powers, the Nazis annexed a large part of western Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland. Winton was convinced that the German occupation of the rest of the country would soon follow. To him and many others, the outbreak of war seemed inevitable. The news of Kristallnacht, the bloody pogrom (violent attack) against German and Austrian Jews on the nights of November 9 and 10, 1938, had reached Prague. Winton decided to take steps.
"I found out that the children of refugees and other groups of people who were enemies of Hitler weren't being looked after. I decided to try to get permits to Britain for them. I found out that the conditions which were laid down for bringing in a child were chiefly that you had a family that was willing and able to look after the child, and £50, which was quite a large sum of money in those days, that was to be deposited at the Home Office. The situation was heartbreaking. Many of the refugees hadn't the price of a meal. Some of the mothers tried desperately to get money to buy food for themselves and their children. The parents desperately wanted at least to get their children to safety when they couldn't manage to get visas for the whole family. I began to realize what suffering there is when armies start to march."In terms of his mission, Winton was not thinking in small numbers, but of thousands of children. He was ready to start a mass evacuation.
"Everybody in Prague said, 'Look, there is no organization in Prague to deal with refugee children, nobody will let the children go on their own, but if you want to have a go, have a go.' And I think there is nothing that can't be done if it is fundamentally reasonable."Independently of Operation Kindertransport (see sidebar), 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 were in, came to Winton and placed the future of their children into his hands. Soon, an office was set up on Vorsilska Street, under the charge of Trevor Chadwick. Thousands of parents heard about this unique endeavor and hundreds of them lined up in front of the new office, drawing the attention of the Gestapo. Winton's office distributed questionnaires and registered the children. Winton appointed Trevor Chadwick and Bill Barazetti to look after the Prague end when he returned to England. Many further requests for help came from Slovakia, a region east of Prague.
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 18 as long as he found homes and guarantors who could deposit £50 for each child to pay for their return home.
Because he wanted to save the lives of as many of the endangered children as possible, Winton returned to London and planned 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 made up an organization, calling it "The British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, Children's Section." The committee consisted of himself, his mother, his secretary and a few volunteers.
Winton had to find funds to use for repatriation costs, and a foster home for each child. He also had to raise money to pay for the transports when the children's parents could not cover the costs. He advertised in British newspapers, and in churches and synagogues. He printed groups of children's photographs all over Britain. He felt certain that seeing the children's photos would convince potential sponsors and foster families to offer assistance. Finding sponsors was only one of the endless problems in obtaining the necessary documents from German and British authorities.
"Officials at the Home Office worked very slowly with the entry visas. We went to them urgently asking for permits, only to be told languidly, 'Why rush, old boy? Nothing will happen in Europe.' This was a few months before the war broke out. So we forged the Home Office entry permits."On March 14, 1939, Winton had his first success: the first transport of children left Prague for Britain by airplane. Winton managed to organize seven more transports that departed from Prague's Wilson Railway Station. The groups then crossed the English Channel by boat and finally ended their journey at London's Liverpool Street station. At the station, British foster parents waited to collect their charges. Winton, who organized their rescue, was set on matching the right child to the right foster parents.
The last trainload of children left on August 2, 1939, bringing the total of rescued children to 669. It is impossible to imagine the emotions of parents sending their children to safety, knowing they may never be reunited, and impossible to imagine the fears of the children leaving the lives they knew and their loved ones for the unknown.
On September 1, 1939 the biggest transport of children was to take place, but on that day Hitler invaded Poland, and all borders controlled by Germany were closed. This put an end to Winton's rescue efforts. Winton has said many times that the vision that haunts him most to this day is the picture of hundreds of children waiting eagerly at Wilson Station in Prague for that last aborted transport.
"Within hours of the announcement, the train disappeared. None of the 250 children aboard was seen again. We had 250 families waiting at Liverpool Street 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, which is an awful feeling."The significance of Winton's mission is verified by the fate of that last trainload of children. Moreover, most of the parents and siblings of the children Winton saved perished in the Holocaust.
After the war, Nicholas Winton didn't tell anyone, not even his wife Grete about his wartime rescue efforts. In 1988, a half century later, Grete found a scrapbook from 1939 in their attic, with all the children's photos, a complete list of names, a few letters from parents of the children to Winton and other documents. She finally learned the whole story. Today the scrapbooks and other papers are held at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, in Israel.
Grete shared the story with Dr. Elisabeth Maxwell, a Holocaust historian and the wife of newspaper magnate Robert Maxwell. Robert Maxwell arranged for his newspaper to publish articles on Winton's amazing deeds. Winton's extraordinary story led to his appearance on Esther Rantzen's BBC television program, That's Life. In the studio, emotions ran high as Winton's "children" introduced themselves and expressed their gratitude to him for saving their lives. Because the program was aired nationwide, many of the rescued children also wrote to him and thanked him. Letters came from all over the world, and new faces still appear at his door, introducing themselves by names that match the documents from 1939.
The rescued children, many now grandparents, still refer to themselves as "Winton's children." Among those saved are the British film director Karel Reisz (The French Lieutenant's Woman, Isadora, and Sweet Dreams), Canadian journalist and news correspondent for CBC, Joe Schlesinger (originally from Slovakia), Lord Alfred Dubs (a former Minister in the Blair Cabinet), Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines (a patron of the arts whose father, Rudolf Fleischmann, saved Thomas Mann from the Nazis), Dagmar Símová (a cousin of the former U.S. 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), and Vera Gissing (author of Pearls of Childhood) and coauthor of Nicholas Winton and the Rescued Generation.
Winton has received many acknowledgements for his humanitarian pre-war deeds. He received a letter of thanks from the late Ezer Weizman, a former president of the State of Israel. He was made an Honorary Citizen of Prague. In 1993, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, awarded him the MBE (Member of the British Empire), and on October 28, 1998, Václav Havel, then president of the Czech Republic, awarded him the Order of T.G. Masaryk at Hradcany Castle for his heroic achievement. On December 31, 2002, Winton received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II for his services to humanity. Winton's story is also the subject of two films by Czech filmmaker Matej Mináč: All My Loved Ones and the award-winning Nicholas Winton: The Power of Good.
Today, Sir Nicholas Winton, age 97, resides at his home in Maidenhead, Great Britain. He still wears a ring given to him by some of the children he saved. It is inscribed with a line from the Talmud, the book of Jewish law. It reads:
Winton humbled by children's gratitude
Czech children collect signatures to nominate British knight for Nobel Peace PrizePosted: October 24, 2007
In his long life, Sir Nicholas Winton, 98, has received many honors, including a knighthood, a planet named after him, and a recent U.S. Congressional resolution for saving 669 children from the Holocaust.
But Czech children still aren’t satisfied.
Over 2,500 students from around the country gathered Oct. 9 in the huge Communist-era assembly hall of the Prague Congress Palace to honor him as only young people can.
After watching “The Power of Good,” Slovak director Matěj Mináč’s film about Winton, the children gave him a three-minute standing ovation.
“This is scarier than anything I ever did in the war,” Winton said, addressing the crowd.
Then the students presented a petition to Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, with over 32,000 signatures, nominating Sir Nicholas for the Nobel Peace Prize.
“I’m embarrassed that school children thought of it before I did,” Schwarzenberg said, adding that he had already sent off a letter to the Nobel Commission in Stockholm.
“I think the Nobel Prize is for people of a completely different caliber,” Sir Nicholas told the crowd in characteristically modest fashion.
Winton came to Czechoslovakia for the first time in December of 1938, just after the German annexation of the Sudetenland. The 29-year-old stockbroker had traveled to Berlin often in the preceding year. He knew about Hitler’s megalomaniacal expansion plans — and what fate he had in store for the Jews.
As Winton watched thousands of Jewish refugees pour into Prague, he realized that something had to be done to save the most vulnerable of them: the children.
When Winton went back to Britain, he started pounding on Foreign Ministry doors. At first his pleas fell on deaf ears — after all, this was only a few months after Neville Chamberlain’s announcement of “peace in our time.” Even America refused to take in the children.
But eventually he wrested a commitment from Britain and Sweden to accept the pint-sized Czechoslovak refugees. The catch was that the British government required that every child should have a British family willing to adopt them — and to pay 50 pounds ($100/2,000 Kč) to do it — a huge sum in those days.
Winton went back to Prague where thousands of frantic Jewish parents were soon entrusting their children to his care. For each of these children, Sir Nicholas tried to find a family in Britain and push the necessary paperwork through the painfully slow British Foreign Ministry pipeline.
“They were infuriating. They kept asking me, ‘What’s your rush?’” Winton recalled. But undaunted, with only a handful of volunteers, he knew he was working against time and Hitler’s armament to get the children out of the country.
Between March and September of 1939 Winton managed to save 669 children. Six trains left Prague, but the seventh, largest train, with over 200 children, never left the station. It was scheduled to leave on Sept. 1 — the same day World War II broke out. Typically for Sir Nicholas, 60 years later, he takes this failure to heart much more than the previous successes.
After those frantic months, Winton never bragged about what he had done in Prague — he just got on with his life.
Realizing he could do no more in Czechoslovakia, Winton went on to drive an ambulance for the Red Cross and train fighter pilots for the Royal Air Force in France. Because he wanted to join as a pilot he already had a pilot’s license, but they wouldn’t take him because of his thick glasses, which he wears to this day.
“I guess you could say that they saved my life,” he said.
After the war, Winton got a job with the International Refugee Organization in Paris, where he was in charge of liquidating the huge store of valuables which the Nazis had confiscated from the Jews, the proceeds of which went to the IRO. He would often find himself escorting truckloads of gold bullion across France alone, with only a driver.
Later, while working at the International Bank in Paris, he met Grete Gjelstrup, a Danish secretary. He approached her with his usual aplomb.
“He sat down on the edge of her desk and calmly asked her to take a letter for his mother in Britain,” said his son, Nick Winton. “Well, she just thought this was completely out of line.”
But the future Mrs. Winton eventually agreed to marry him and raise a family. They brought their children up with a mixture of old-fashioned firmness and understanding.
“Father wasn’t all that young when we were born, and he was quite strict in the way he brought us up,” said Winton’s daughter Barbara Watson. “When there were guests, we were expected to come down and converse with them properly… And when I was going through my own teenage rebellion, I remember we would disagree a lot. Then, one day, he gave me a box of chocolates and said ‘I know we don’t always agree with what you do, but we don’t want to lose you because of it.’ ... I try to remember that now that my own children are the age I was then.”
Always eager to explore new things, Winton never stuck with one job for long. During his long life, among other things, he owned an ice-cream company.
“It was lovely. We could come home from school and have any flavor of ice cream we wanted,” Barbara recalls. “We felt so lucky.”
After moving to Maidenhead, England, Winton became an active member of the Rotary Club. The birth of his son, Robin, in 1956, with Down’s syndrome got Winton involved in charity work. Contrary to the conventional wisdom of the day, he and Grete didn’t put Robin in an institution, but kept him at home until he died in 1962.
“He was a lovely kid — very loving and affectionate. Father was so appalled at the level of understanding and advice that he got involved in Mencap,” Nick said.
Later, Winton turned his attention to helping the elderly, and today he still helps raise money to build Abbeyfield retirement homes in his region. It was for this work that he received his first award, a Member of the British Empire.
In 1988, when cleaning out the attic, Grete came across a trunk full of pictures of Jewish children. When she asked her husband about them, he told her, “That’s ancient history, get rid of them.”
Instead, she brought them to the attention of Elizabeth Maxwell, the widow of media magnate Robert Maxwell and, 50 years after the fact, Winton’s deeds came to light.
Suddenly, to his dismay, Winton found himself in the public eye. After Grete died, in 1999, he had to face the glare of publicity alone.
That publicity led to a resolution from the U.S. Congress in September to honor him.
“I felt the US had not done the right thing back in 1939 and I wanted to do something to make up for it,” said Peter Rafaeli, the Czech honorary consul in Philadelphia, who initiated the resolution.
And when Winton’s son and daughter accompany him abroad, they are always surprised at the sensation his presence causes.
At home nobody makes a fuss about him, and then we come to Prague and find out he’s a hero,” Barbara says.
Winton continues to insist he is not.
“I was never in danger,” he says. “I simply saw a need and filled it.”
Seventy years, one knighthood and several international awards later, Winton is convinced that the huge organizational effort that went into his deed was perfectly natural.
“There is nothing that is fundamentally reasonable that can’t be done,” he likes to say.
The Czech teenagers finally broke through Sir Nicholas’ sangfroid. In the grand finale, as two orchestras and the girl’s choir, Bambini di Praga, sang a song that was written for him called “Angels Among Us,” 2,500 cell phones lit up like an army of fireflies, and started swaying to the tune.
Onstage, Sir Nicholas’ thick glasses started to mist over.
Postscript: Thursday, Oct. 11, after visiting Forum 2000 in Prague as a guest of honor, meeting President Václav Klaus and an honors ceremony at the British Embassy, Sir Nicholas Winton was taken to Prague’s Faculty Hospital. Winton was flown home by military airplane last week, and he is apparently out of danger.
Eva Munk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
4/28/14 Update: Check out CBS 60 Minutes recent coverage on Sir Nicholas Winton