People I Like: Sir Nicholas Winton

Studying history comes with both bad and good. It’s important we remember both, both as something to celebrate and something we try not to repeat.

Modern history is not my thing, but of that era, the Holocaust is one of my interests, although it’s so awful I sometimes literally have to ration how much I read at a sitting. But it’s important to understand, and I think it’s really important my students understand, since most of them don’t know much about it beyond “six million Jews died.” Don’t get me wrong: that’s an important fact. But it also only reflects a fraction of just how horrific the Holocaust was, which included:

  • About five million exterminated non-Jews such as Poles, the Romani (Gypsies), homosexuals and the disabled.
  • Medical experiments (which will put most horror movie plots to shame)
  • Systematic humiliation and dehumanization
  • Turning prisoners on one another
  • Arbitrary executions
  • Being worked to death
  • Deliberate starvation
  • Being left barefoot in winter
  • prisoners forced to walk through human waste
  • Harvesting of hair, gold fillings and other usable materials from the dead
  • The amount of resources dedicated to this process to the detriment of the German army, which was increasingly strapped for resources. IN the end, Hitler was way more interested in obliterating these people than winning a war.

One of the things that gets me through these sorts of tragedies are the glimmers of goodness, and one of those glimmers is Sir Nicholas Winton, whose story has stuck with me since the moment I heard it.

Kindertransport

The kindertransport was the evacuation of Jewish children out of areas falling under Nazi control. Most of them were organized by the Central British Fund for German Jewry and focused on Germany and Austria. It saved about 10,000 children.

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Winton became aware of the plight of children in Czechoslovakia. He and a couple associates started their own kindertransport, collecting money, securing visas, and generally making arrangements for these children to legally leave occupied Czechoslovakia, arrive in Britain, be put under the care of volunteer families, and eventually be reunited with their parents after the war.

That last step generally didn’t happen. These children became orphans.

We have records of 669 children saved by Winton. And yet, once the project was shut down by the Nazis, Winton stuffed his paperwork into his attic and never told a damn soul. The story came to light in the 1990s when he wife, who had never heard the story, found the paperwork.

Why Hide It?

Perspective is everything. We look at his actions and see the 669 children he saved. Winton, however, could only think of the 250 children he lost.

He had the paperwork and the money for them. He had them on a train to leave Czechoslovakia. But then the Nazis changed their mind. At the beginning, the Nazis had no solid plan for the Jews. If other people wanted to remove Jews from their territory, that wasn’t a bad thing. But as Hitler became more dedicated to wiping the Jews from the face of the earth, the kindertransport became a liability rather than a benefit.

The children were instead sent to a concentration camp where they died. Winton’s associates were booted from Czechoslovakia.

We see 669 children saved. This man saw 250 lost.

Where is He Now?

Winton is currently 104 years old and continues to live in Britain. He was knighted in 2003, which officially makes him Sir Nicholas Winton.

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Where are the Children?

Many of the children remained in Britain, as there was nothing left for them in Czechoslovakia, which shortly fell under the control of the Soviet Union after the war.

Meeting the Children

The video below is taken at an event honoring Winton. What Winton didn’t know was that the audience was full of people whom he had saved when they were children.

Here CNN celebrates Winton’s 104th birthday (yup, 104th) with an interview with one of the saved children.

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