A special service has been held today at London’s Guildhall on what would have been his birthday in memory of Sir Nicholas Winton who rescued more than 600 children from Czechoslovakia after the Nazis invaded the country in 1939. Most of the children were Jewish. Their families decided to send them away on trains organised by Sir Nicholas. Some 28 of those he saved as children were among 400 people who attended the event along with Czech, Slovak and UK government representatives.
It wasn’t until 1998 that his story came to light and, with it, a blaze of publicity, culminating in an evening on Esther Rantzen’s “That’s Life” TV show when the whole audience suddenly stood up round him, applauding him, and every one was a child he had saved. Winton was born on May 19th 1909
Today in a world where refugees are demonised we mourn the passing of an amazing man who saved many lives. Sir Nicholas Winton, who organised the rescue of 669 children destined for Nazi concentration camps, died on the 1st July last aged 106. Winton was a stockbroker when he arranged for trains to carry Jewish children out of occupied Prague. His son-in-law Stephen Watson said he died peacefully in his sleep at Wexham Hospital, Slough.
Born on 19 May 1909: Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 Czech children from their doomed fate in the Nazi death camps pic.twitter.com/2ypZcwnwre
— History (@HistoryTime_) May 19, 2016
He died on the anniversary of the departure of a train in 1939 carrying the largest number of children – 241. Winton brought the children to Britain, battling bureaucracy at both ends, saving them from almost certain death, and then kept quiet about his exploits for a half-century. Winton, whose work has been likened to that of the “saviour” of Jewish prisoners Oskar Schindler, was knighted by the Queen in March 2003. However there is an important distinction between the two. Unlike Schindler Nick Winton never profited from what he did or sought any recognition, that only came later when his Dutch wife who he married after the war saw his scrapbook he kept in the attic. As a 29 year old Winton acted out of pure altruism using his own money and what he could beg and borrow in cash and kind to help these children. Eight of the nine trains he organised arrived at Liverpool Street Station with their precious cargo of young children. The ninth train was stopped on the day war broke out and all the 250 Jewish children on it are presumed to have perished in the Nazi’s “Final Solution.”
The Rotary Club of Maidenhead, of which Winton was former president, said his daughter Barbara and two grandchildren were at his side when he died. His son Nick said of his father’s legacy: “It is about encouraging people to make a difference and not waiting for something to be done or waiting for someone else to do it. “It’s what he tried to tell people in all his speeches and in the book written by my sister.” Sir Nicholas was also a Labour activist and perennial candidate in Maidenhead, where he lived. (Then as now, Maidenhead was not particularly fertile Labour territory) His election address gives you a flavour of his modesty, which you can see below:
Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust Karen Pollock MBE said: “Sir Nicholas Winton’s selfless, noble and courageous acts saved 669 young Jewish lives from the horrors of the Holocaust. ‘Nicky’s children’, as they have come to be known, and the generations who have followed them, will be eternally grateful for this modest man. Anyone who has heard of Nicholas Winton has learnt something about standing up against injustice – he was a hero of our time. He will be greatly missed. ”
The poppies by Sir Nicholas Winton at Maidenhead station look beautiful and feel very appropriate… pic.twitter.com/nDCsjlcT8Q
— Joel Voysey (@joelvoysey) June 19, 2015
Prime Minister David Cameron paid tribute to Sir Nicholas, tweeting: “The world has lost a great man. We must never forget Sir Nicholas Winton’s humanity in saving so many children from the Holocaust.” Michael Zantovsky, Ambassador of the Czech Republic to the United Kingdom, who was a close friend described Sir Nicholas as “a positive man who radiated good”. “It was incredibly moving to be present at some of the gatherings of him with his so-called children and the children of his children. They all owe their existence to him.”
— Haaretz.com (@haaretzcom) July 1, 2015
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis praised Sir Nicholas’ “exceptional courage, selflessness and modesty. He lived to see thousands of descendants of those whose lives he saved who were proud to call themselves members of his family, and who were inspired by his example to undertake outstanding charitable, humanitarian and educational initiatives,” he said. “I knew him to be a gentleman of unfailing old-world courtesy, with a warm heart and a ready self-deprecating wit.”
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who was Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013, called Sir Nicholas a “giant of moral courage” and “one of the heroes of our time. Our sages said that saving a life is like saving a universe. Sir Nicholas saved hundreds of universes,” he said.
Perhaps the most remarkable man living in Britain today Sir Nicholas Winton on the 19th May celebrated his 106th birthday. His previous party on the occasion of his 105th birthday had been at the Czech embassy in London. The guests at the party were the offspring of 669 children – mostly Jewish – rescued by Winton from almost certain death in the months before the second world war broke out in 1939. Most of their families ended up interned and murdered in Nazi concentration camps. Today they call themselves “Nicky’s children”.
Sir Nicholas was awarded the Order of the White Lion, the country’s most revered state distinction, for giving Czech children “the greatest possible gift: the chance to live and to be free”. The Czech president, Milos Zeman, wrote to Sir Nicholas: “Your life is an example of humanity, selflessness, personal courage and modesty.” In 1939, Sir Nicholas masterminded the transportation of children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to Britain, saving them from the concentration camps.
Nicholas Winton rarely spoke of his achievements in the decades that followed, believing his actions to be unremarkable. He came to public attention only in 1988, when he was reunited with some of those who call themselves “Nicky’s Children” on an emotional episode of the BBC programme That’s Life! Sir Nicholas was a 29-year-old stockbroker about to set off on a skiing holiday in December 1938 when a friend urged him to change his plans and visit Prague. A politically-minded young man, he agreed to go in order to witness what was happening in the country. The Nazis had invaded the Sudetenland two months earlier and the situation in Prague was becoming increasingly dangerous for Jews.
While agencies were organising the mass evacuation of children from Austria and Germany, there was no such provision in Czechoslovakia. Sir Nicholas began meeting parents who were desperate for their children to be taken to a place of safety, and began compiling a list of names. The first train left Prague on March 14, the day before German troops marched into Czechoslovakia. Two fellow volunteers, Trevor Chadwick and Doreen Warriner, organised the Prague end of the operation.
Sir Nicholas returned to Britain and masterminded the rescue mission, finding adoptive homes for the children, pleading for funds and navigating the complex bureaucracy – ensuring each child had the £50 guarantee (£2,500 in today’s money) to pay for their eventual return, and securing exit and entry permits. On some occasions, he forged Home Office documents which had been too slow to arrive, and without which the children would not have been allowed to leave Czechoslovakia.
Name tags around their necks, the bewildered children arrived at Liverpool Street Station where Sir Nicholas and his mother would greet them. Some had relatives in the UK, but most went to live with strangers. Eight trains reached London. The ninth did not. It had been set to leave on September 1, carrying 250 children – the largest number yet. But that day Germany invaded Poland, and all borders were closed.
Those who arrived at the station were turned away by German soldiers. It is thought that nearly all the children due to leave that day ended up in the concentration camps. Some were siblings of children who had made it out on earlier trains. An estimated 6,000 people across the world are descendants of ‘Nicky’s Children’.
His achievements would have gone unheralded were it not for a scrapbook which he had kept. It contained pictures, documents, letters and photos from the mission, and a list of the children saved.
A family friend passed the scrapbook to a newspaper in 1988 and the story was taken up by That’s Life!, the consumer programme hosted by Esther Rantzen. Sir Nicholas, then 78, was invited on to the show and, in a moving sequence, found himself seated in an audience made up of those who owed their lives to him. His involvement with the victims of the Nazis did not end with the Kindertransport. In 1947, he began work for the International Refugee Organisation, part of the United Nations. His role was to supervise the disposal of items looted by the Nazis and recovered by the Allies.
Asked what message he would like the biography to carry, Sir Nicholas told his daughter: “I came to believe through my life that what is important is that we live by the common ethics of all religions – kindness, decency, love, respect and honour for others – and not worry about the aspects within religion that divide us.”
— ITV News (@itvnews) May 19, 2016
His surviving children Nick and Barbara Winton speak at events around the world about how one person can change lives. Barbara Winton wrote his biography If It’s Not Impossible, the title of which is taken from his motto: “If something is not impossible there must be a way of doing it.”
A separate memorial concert is to take place on Friday at St John’s Smith Square in central London, including readings by actors Jason Isaacs and Rupert Graves and music from cellist Alexander Baillie, raising funds for current child refugees.
Sir Nicholas George Winton, MBE (born Nicholas Wertheim; 19 May 1909 – 1 July 2015)
See: The Pathos of Jewish Prague