Birth Name: Nicholas George Winton
Nicknames: The British Schindler, Nicky
Years Lived: May 19, 1909 – July 1, 2015 (106 years old)
Place Born: West Hampstead, London, England
Place Died: Slough, United Kingdom
Family Origins: German-Jewish
Occupations: Stock-broker, banker, humanitarian
Family: Father, Barbara (mother), Greta (wife), Nicholas (son), Barbara (daughter), Holly (granddaughter) and Lawrence (grandson).
Nicholas Winton is a great man in history because of his astounding contribution in what later became known as operation Czech Kindertransport. Winton was a humanitarian from England who arranged the liberation of about 669 mostly Jewish children from German-inhabited Czechoslovakia just before World War II 1. After rescuing the children, he organized secure travel for them to England and placed them with foster families. The UK press later dubbed him as the “British Schindler” 2.
Nicholas was born on May 19, 1909 in Hampstead, London. His parents were of Jewish origin and had emigrated there six years before from Germany 3. The family’s original surname was Wertheim but it was changed to Winton in order to assimilate to the British culture 4.
The Wintons eventually changed their religion to Christianity and young Nicholas was then baptized into the new faith 5. At the age of ten, Nicholas was enrolled in the newly opened Stowe School in Buckingham 6. At Stowe, young Nicholas was greatly influenced by a math teacher, which would later lead to his interest in banking. Winton departed school before graduation and applied to night school while signing up as a volunteer at the Midland Bank 7.
A while later, he moved to Hamburg, Germany and where he began employment at Behrens Bank and later Wasserman Bank in Berlin. Winton relocated to Paris in 1931, where he was employed at the Banque Nationale de Crédit in Paris. It was there where he completed his banking qualification 7.
During a visit to Germany after 1933, Winton observed the Nazi oppression of the Jews and began to foresee the horrible devastation that awaited them in Europe. Winton’s visualization became true in 1939 when Hitler “black listed” many minorities in Germany under the “final solution” and the holocaust began. After a short trip to New York, Winton found that the US economy was in too much crisis and upon his father’s request, he moved back to London. There, he began working at the Anglo-Czech Bank and as a stockbroker at the London Stock Exchange 7.
One of Winton’s favorite hobbies was fencing. He was such a skilled fencer that he would have represented the UK in the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan if World War II hadn’t have started. After the war, Nicholas and his brother developed the largest British fencing federal competition, the Winton Cup, which still occurs today. As an avid follower of aviation, Winton attended flying school and in late 1933, he earned his pilot’s license. Later, during World War II, he joined the RAF (the British Royal Air Force) 7.
By 1938, Nicholas was 29 and just before a winter vacation to Switzerland, his colleague, Martin Blake needed his assistance. Blake told him to cancel his trip and meet him in Prague for an important undertaking. “I have a most interesting assignment and I need your help. Don’t bother bringing your skis,” Blake explained to Nicholas 8. Winton didn’t think twice and traveled to the Hotel Šroubek in Prague where Blake was staying. When he arrived, he was asked to assist in “The Camps” where thousands of refugees were living in harrowing circumstances 8. These refugees were fleeing Sudetenland from the Nazi army. Sudetenland was the large area in western Czechoslovakia that was captured by Hitler before the beginning of WWII. Blake was on assignment there by the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia and was tasked in assisting mostly politicians, educators and artists to escape 7.
Winton believed that the German takeover of the remainder of Czechoslovakia was looming in the near future. To him and some others, this would be the start of a Second World War. After the news of Kristallnacht (the bloody pogrom or violent attack) against German and Austrian Jews on the evenings of November 9 and 10 in 1938, had reached Prague, Winton was determined to act 8.
Winton mentioned the circumstances he encountered:
“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.” 8
“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.” 8
During the same time, in December 2, 1938, Jewish and Christian organizations began liberating German and Austrian Jewish children during an operation named “Kindertransporten” or children’s transports. The “Refugee Children’s Movement”, an agency under the authority of the CBF (Central British Fund for German Jewry which later became the World Jewish Relief organization), implored the aid of interested Christians and Jews. A lengthy charity event was coordinated and the English people answered with open hearts. £500,000 was raised in just six months. From December 1938 through May 1940, almost 10,000 children (from infants to teenagers) were liberated and offered shelter at farms, hostels, camps and in private homes in Britain. However, Kindertransporten did not involve Czechoslovakian children. That is why the efforts of Nicholas Winton and his colleagues were so important 8.
Apart from Operation Kindertransporten, Nicholas Winton organized his own rescue attempts in Czechoslovakia with the assistance of fellow team members, Trevor Chardwick, Bill Barrazetti, Dorreen Warriner and many more. However, despite his best motives, he was met with many hurdles because the majority of Czechs were blind to the inevitable Nazi threat. After much deliberation, Nicholas procured help from contacts in Prague 7. Worried parents eventually acknowledged the peril they and their children were faced with and arrived at Winton’s office on Vorsilska Street to trust him with their children’s safety. Word spread and many more parents sought Winton’s help which came to the attention of the Nazi Gestapo 8.
Due to the influx of requests by parents to relocate their endangered children, Winton appointed Trevor Chadwick and Bill Barazetti to overlook the Prague office and returned to his hometown in London where he arranged the transportation of children to England. Winton continued to work his previous job at the London Stock Exchange during the day and then spent his late afternoons and evenings in his rescue efforts, usually operating late into the night. His agency “The British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, Children’s Section” was made up of himself, his mother, his secretary and several others 8.
His institution that was considered as nearly illegal to some was able to organize visas, health documentation and received backing from many humanitarian agencies.
Winton explained once:
“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.” 8
On March 14, 1939, Winton saw the first fruits of his labors. The initial transport of children he had arranged flew out of Prague bound for Britain. Winton was able to coordinate seven additional rescue efforts by train that left Prague’s Wilson Railway Station. Upon arrival in England, Winton would match the children up with foster families where they would stay for the remainder of the war 8.
The future writer Vera Gissing boarded a train Winton had arranged in Prague on June 30, 1939 with her sister and 239 other children. She later wrote of her final glance at her parents:
“The scene at Prague station will be with me forever. The forced cheerfulness of my parents – their last words of love, encouragement and advice. Until that moment, I felt more excited than afraid, but when the whistle blew and the train pulled slowly out of the station, my beloved mother and father could no longer mask their anguish.” 9
Winton’s final rescue effort left by train on August 2, 1939, bringing the total number of liberated children to 669. It was unimaginable to think of parents sending their children to safety aware that they may never see them again and inconceivable to realize the despair of the children leaving their livelihoods and loved ones behind 8.
On September 1, 1939, the largest evacuation of children was planned. It was also on this day that Hitler invaded Poland and every border controlled by the Nazis was closed. It was on this day that Winton had also arranged the departure of 250 children from Wilson Station. The mental image that haunts Winton the most is the picture of hundreds of children watching anxiously at Wilson Station for their train that would transport them through the Third Reich to freedom in Britain, only to discover that it had been canceled 8.
“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”, Winton sadly reported 8.
The value of Winton’s efforts is confirmed by the fate of that final trainload of children. Furthermore, most of the families of the children Winton had saved ended up succumbing to the Holocaust, for there was no way of rescuing entire families; just the children 8.
Following the war, Winton returned to his previous banking career in London. For fifty years, his amazing accomplishments remained unnoticed until his wife found a suitcase in their attic that was filled of old records and transportation documents; the remains of his marvelous deeds. She then offered them to Elisabeth Maxwell, a holocaust historian, who got a hold of Esther Rantzen, the host of BBC’s “That’s Life”.
During the program, the atmosphere was thick with excitement as Nicolas Winton’s “children” revealed who they were and gave their thanks to him for saving them from death and offering them new lives. After the show, many more of the rescued children, now grown, began writing and offering their thanks to Winton. Reports came from all corners of the world and more of Winton’s “children” appeared at his house to thank him. In 1998, Slovak film director Matej Mináč learned of Winton’s deeds and began to spread the news through television and through his movie “Nicky’s Family” 7.
Regardless that the deeds of this humble “British Schindler” were kept secret for fifty years, they were not unnoticed. Ezer Weizman, the former president of Israel wrote him a letter of thanks. He was also given status as “Honorary Citizen” of Prague and awarded the highest Czech military medal. In 1993, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, awarded Winton the MBE (Member of the British Empire) and on October 28, 1998, Václav Havel, then President of the Czech Republic, gave him the Order of T.G. Masaryk at Hradcany Castle for his valiant efforts. Even a small planet, discovered in 2000 by Czech scientists was named after him. On December 31, 2002, Winton was knighted by Queen Elisabeth II for his acts of humanity and thus now carries the title of “Sir Winton” 7.
In 2013, at 104, Nicholas Winton was still very involved in many humanitarian projects and was in good humor. Even though his beloved wife Greta died, he was never deserted. In addition to his immediate family, the largest numbers of his relatives are from his liberated children that today, along with their extended families, totals almost 6,000 people. Winton was still actively working as a humanitarian and in 2005, the “Winton House” for the elderly opened near Windsor. He lived in his home in Maidenhead, England and wore a ring that was given to him by some of the children he saved. Inside the ring, a line from the Talmud reads: “Save one life, save the world” 8.
1. Winton.dk.com. (2013). Sir nicholas winton – a man of courage. The Rescuer, Retrieved from http://www.winton.dk/index.htm
2. BBC News Berkshire. (2010). Statue for ‘british schindler’ sir nicholas winton. BBC, Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-berkshire-11356875
3. Vashem, Y. (2011). Nicholas winton. The Holocaust Explained, Retrieved from http://www.theholocaustexplained.org/ks3/responses-1933-1945/what-did-organisations-do/nicholas-winton/
4. Shearson, D. (2010). Nicholas george wertheim. Free BMD, Retrieved from http://www.freebmd.org.uk/cgi/information.pl?cite=lpySrGekzZrDqT0hTVMp/A&scan=1
5. BBC. (2009). Profile: Nicholas winton. BBC News, Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/8227798.stm
6. Stowe School. (2013). The official opening of stanhope house. Stowe school – buckingham, england, Retrieved from http://www.stowe.co.uk/news-and-events/news-archive/139/the-official-opening-of-stanhope-house
7. Mináč, M. (Director) (2011). Nick’ys family [DVD]. Available from http://www.menemshafilms.com/sites/default/files/press-kits/press_kit_nickys_family.pdf
8. Beitz , H. (2009). Nicholas winton – the story. Gelman Educational Foundation, Retrieved from http://www.powerofgood.net/story.php
9. Tweedie, N. (2013). The unsung british hero with his own schindler’s list. The telegraph, Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/10064216/The-unsung-British-hero-with-his-own-Schindlers-List.html