Sir Nicholas Winton – One man made a difference in 1939.
Mankind’s challenges often seem too overwhelming for one person to make a difference. I attended a dinner in Prague with Nick Winton, the son of Sir Nicholas Winton, a man who saved 669 children when he was 29. Ordinary in most ways, Sir Nicholas was a young, single, athletic, English stockbroker who was on the sidelines of the brewing trouble in Europe in 1938 and who viewed the world differently than most.
Why did Winton save children when most of the world turned their backs on them? Why was he so quiet about it for fifty years?
Winton cancelled a two-week ski vacation before Christmas in 1938 and went to Prague to help a friend who had begun work with the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia. The country was being occupied by the Nazis. Kristallnacht in November of 1938 clarified the growing threat.
“I saw those people who were in difficulty and danger, people on Hitler’s black list. There was nobody to help. I thought, at least I ought to try to save the children.”
~ Nicholas Winton
Understanding the acute danger to Jews in Prague, Winton organized trains to carry children from Prague to England. He reached out to the United States and other countries to accept refugee children. All refused except Sweden, which accepted a few. The Netherlands officially refused to allowed Jews to transit their country, but relented for Winton’s trains because of England’s acceptance of the children.
Winton persuaded Britain to accept threatened children under 18 if he could get them to England, find a British family to host each, and provide 50 pounds each to pay for their return to their country when it was safe. He had to raise the money to make it all possible.
Winton’s first train took 20 children to England on March 14th, 1939. Six hundred and sixty-nine children rode to safety in England over the next six months. On September 1st, 1939, at Prague station, 250 children were boarding the largest train. War was declared. The train was cancelled. It is reported that only two of the children who almost got out of Prague on that train survived the war.
How do I think about desperate Jewish parents at Prague station who bravely put their young children on a train to cross dangerous countries and ultimately to rely on strangers in Britain to host them – and to give them a chance to live. They must have known that they would never see them again.
Image from YouTube
Winton was humble. His wife did not know what he had accomplished before they met. In 1988, she found a scrap book in their attic filled with the names and photos of the children her husband had saved. She shared it with someone at the BBC. Most of Winton’s ‘children’ did not know who had saved them and many did not know how they had come to be in England. In this four-minute segment from the TV show, That’s Life, you will see a stunned Winton meet some of the ‘children’ he had saved fifty years before.
Winton never fully explained why he was so quiet about his efforts, except to say that people should look forward, not back and that others were involved and risked more. Remarkable.
Nicholas Winton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2003 and in 2014 he was awarded the highest honor of the Czech Republic, The Order of the White Lion. He died in 2015 at 106.
Nick Winton, Sir Nicholas’ son, shared this extract from a letter his father wrote to the British Government on May 4th, 1939. Sir Nicholas opens with a description of the violence in Europe and an understanding that people of good heart might conclude that the individual cannot change the sweep of history – and instead individuals must settle for a personal resolution to live a good life. Sir Nicholas Winton wrote…
… “But there is a difference between passive goodness and active goodness which is, in my opinion, the giving of one’s time and energy in the alleviation of pain and suffering. It entails going out, finding and helping those suffering and in danger and not merely living an exemplary life, in the purely passive way of doing no wrong.” …
Children Saved from the Nazis: The Story of Nicholas Winton This documentary, created by one of ‘Winton’s children’ uses historical film footage, actors and interviews of survivors to gives the whole story of Winton’s Kindertransport. (1 hour)
If It’s Not Impossible…: The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton
by Barbara Winton (4.01 on Goodreads) Paperback $17.59
Finally, Nick Winton, Sir Nicholas’s son is a successful businessman who is passionate about the lessons of his father’s efforts. Based in England, he speaks passionately about the Kinderstransport and his father. As you can tell, Nick inspired me. You can reach him at: [email protected]