‘British Schindler’ Saved 669 Kids From Nazis
Despite claiming he wasn’t heroic because he was never in danger, generations survived because of Nicholas Winton’s work on the Kindertransport.
Between March and August 1939, eight trains carrying 669 children—most of them Jewish—left Prague for London, a journey that saved their lives and which was organised by Nicholas Winton. He died on July 1, aged 106.
Inevitably, Winton was hailed by the press as the “British Schindler,” though he protested that his experience had been nothing like that of the German businessman who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews by employing them in his munitions factory. “I wasn’t heroic because I was never in danger,” he explained, adding that his campaign had been in the run-up to the war, and pointing out that his colleagues Doreen Warriner and Trevor Chadwick had spent longer in Prague, under the scrutiny of the Gestapo.
Winton was an unassuming English stockbroker whose role in organizing the Kindertransport remained largely unknown until 1988, when his Danish wife Grete gave a scrapbook with details of his action and a list of the children to Elizabeth Maxwell, who was running a conference on the Holocaust. Her husband Robert was a newspaper tycoon who owed the Sunday Mirror, a mass-market tabloid that brought the story to a wide audience.
Then a popular British television programme, That’s Life!, picked up the story. Halfway through the item, the presenter disclosed that Winton was in the audience, and that the woman seated beside him had been on one of the trains. Winton, then aged 78, who had been given no warning and later felt that he had been ambushed, burst into tears. The following week, back on the programme, members of the audience were asked to stand if they owed their lives to him: dozens got to their feet. Winton found the whole thing thoroughly embarrassing.
He also rather resented the fact that, after 1988, his role in the evacuation was the only thing about which he was ever asked. When a biography of him appeared in 2001, he complained that: “It was only nine months out of 92 years, yet this book makes it seem it was my whole life.”
Yet he conceded, reluctantly, that he could understand the interest. “It turned out to be remarkable, but it didn’t seem remarkable when I did it.” This was a characteristic and considerable understatement. Of the 15,000 Jewish children estimated to have been living in Prague at the outbreak of war, fewer than 100 were thought to have survived. None of the 250 children on the final train Winton organized, which was prevented from leaving the city when war was declared, was ever heard of again—“an awful feeling,” he later said.
He was born Nicholas George Wertheim on May 19, 1909, at West Hampstead in north London, into a family with German-Jewish roots. His paternal grandparents had settled in Britain in the mid-19th century and his father was a businessman who imported glassware from Bohemia. His mother moved to London from Germany in 1907.
Despite his background, he was brought up as a Christian, and attended public school at Stowe, where he learnt to fence. In later life he was sceptical of all faiths, seeing them as an impediment to ethics. Of his motivations for the Kindertransport, he said: “I didn’t do it because they were Jewish children. I did it because they were children.”
On leaving school, he joined a bank in the City of London and, in the late 1920s, spent some time working for banks in Berlin and Paris and becoming fluent in German and French. On his return to London in 1931 he worked for the Anglo-Czech Bank and then for the brokerage wings of other City firms. He became a member of the London Stock Exchange in 1937. The following year, he was selected for the British Olympic fencing team.
That year, he and his family also changed their name to Winton, severing their association with their German background. Despite his day job at the heart of capitalism, Winton had become a convinced socialist, and viewed developments in Europe with suspicion. He had read Mein Kampf and his parents had increasingly been playing host to a number of overseas relatives, who had alarming tales of Hitler’s regime.
Though convinced war was on the way, Winton was also a pacifist and a member of the Peace Pledge Union. At their meetings he became friendly with a schoolmaster named Martin Blake, with whom he planned to go on a skiing holiday. At the last minute, Blake announced he was going instead to Prague, and suggested Winton join him.
Blake was associated with the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, which had set up an office in Prague under Doreen Warriner, and wanted Winton to inspect the camps that had sprung up after the annexation of the Czech Sudetenland by Germany. Warriner and Blake were attempting to help dissidents and others at risk escape the country, but no one had yet given any thought to what would happen to the children.
Winton volunteered for the role and, working at first from his hotel room in Wenceslaus Square, acquired in three weeks the details of some 6,000 children whose parents were prepared to send them to foster families in England and Sweden. There followed the difficult task of persuading bureaucrats—many of whom were complacent about the situation in Czechoslovakia—to arrange permits for their travel.
Winton needed to find prospective foster parents and £50—a significant sum when £5 was almost a week’s wages—for each child. He advertised in newspapers and worked in the evenings from his room in Hampstead; as time went on, he became more and more desperate, and eventually began to forge papers.
The outbreak of war meant the end of the Kindertransport and Winton, still a pacifist, volunteered as an ambulance driver. He was at the British retreat from France and dealt with the bombings of British cities; gradually, his Czech experience brought him round to the view that it was necessary to fight Nazism, and he volunteered for the Royal Air Force.
Though he had learned to fly before the war, his eyesight wasn’t up to the standards required of fighter pilots, and he became a flight instructor. At the end of the war he went to work for the Intergovernmental Committee for Refugees and then, in 1948, for the International Bank in Paris, where he met his wife.
In 1950, they returned to Britain and settled in Berkshire, where Winton built a house. He moved from banking into working in the finance departments of a series of businesses, including a spell as a director of a popsicle factory. He and his wife had three children; the youngest, who suffered from Down’s syndrome, died the day before his sixth birthday.
On his retirement in 1957, Winton devoted much of his time to charitable work, especially with the mental health group Mencap; in 1963, before his pre-war efforts with refugees were widely known, he received the MBE for his voluntary work. In 2003, after his story had been publicised, he was knighted. The Czech government gave him the freedom of the city of Prague and the Order of the White Lion. Statues commemorating his work were unveiled in both Prague and Liverpool Street station in London. Grete Winton died in 1999; he is survived by a son and a daughter.