Sir Nicholas Winton, a quiet civilian hero of World War II, has died at the age of 106. In a time of considerable disinterest in the Jewish plight, Winton rescued 669 Czech Jewish children, most of whom would have otherwise perished.
In pre-World War II Europe, Jewish living conditions varied widely. Centuries of anti-Semitism were a reason locals often did little to support their Jewish neighbors when the Germans came and further persecuted them. Many were forced to live as refugees in increasingly dire conditions. Some fled to other countries, but most either didn’t have the resources or couldn’t find countries willing to accept them. The United States, for example, had strict per-country quotas that vastly favored certain Western Europeans, while most of the refugees were Eastern Europeans.
In 1938, the British government made an exception to their immigration laws and issued visas to thousands of Jewish children. Children were seen as far less of a burden than an entire family, which would need its own lodging and employment. Instead, these children were to be taken in by foster families. Their stay was also to be temporary, with the children returning home at the end of the war.
The resulting exodus is known as the kindertransport, and it saved about 10,000 children. A variety of organizations worked to meet the requirements. That meant securing permission from German authorities as well as from any other countries through which the children might travel. It required finding foster families ahead of time, as well as securing £50 per child to cover their expenses in returning home.
That last step rarely happened. The vast majority of kindertransport children were orphaned by the Holocaust, and they remained in their foster countries.
While most organizations focused on Germany and Austria, Nicholas Winton became involved in Czechoslovakia. He and only a couple associates made all the necessary arrangements to evacuate a total of 669 children on eight trains between March and August, 1939. The largest group included 241 children and left Prague on July 1, exactly 76 years before Winston’s death.
On September 3, 1939, with the outbreak of war, the Germans denied exit for a ninth train of 250 children, nearly all of whom eventually perished in the Holocaust. With nothing more to do, Winton stuffed his paperwork into his attic and never told a soul. For the next 50 years, the Czech kindertransport was all but forgotten. The story only came to light in 1988 when he wife, who had never heard the story, found the papers and convinced him it was important to come forward.
Recognition of Nicholas Winton
Many have dubbed Winton the “British Schindler,” a comparison Winton has always resisted. Much of the issue has to do with perspective. We look at his actions and see the 669 children he saved. Winton, however, could only think of the 250 children he lost. To Winton, his efforts ultimately ended in failure.
Winton has been honored in a variety of ways over the years. He was awarded the Order of the White Lion, the Czech Republic’s highest honor, in 2013. In 2008, they pushed for him to be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize. Since then, others have continued to press for it. Britain knighted him in 2002. At least two statues exist of him, one in Britain and the other in the Czech Republic. In 2009, the “Winton train” followed the kindertransport route from Prague to Liverpool. Passengers included several “Winton children” as well as their families.
Of course, the other side of this story is comprised of the hundreds of survivors and thousands of descendants who owe their lives to Winton. In 1988, not long after the story broke, the BBC show That’s Life honored Winton. What Winton didn’t know was that the audience was full of people whom he had saved.