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Honoring the Legacy of a Reluctant Hero
Nicholas Winton, organizer of the Czechoslovakian Kindertransport, saved 669 Czechoslovakian children from the Nazis in 1939
Organizer of the Czechoslovakian Kindertransport
May 19, 1909-July 1, 2015
“If something is not impossible, there must be a way to do it.”
- Nicholas Winton
In 1938, when Nicholas Winton was a young stockbroker in London, he heard from a friend about the horrific conditions facing Czechoslovakian refugees as the Nazis took over the borders of their country. These reports disturbed Winton enough that he canceled the ski trip he’d planned in Switzerland. Instead, he went to Prague to see if he might be of help there.
On the cusp of World War II, the Kindertransport already evacuated 10,000 Jewish children from Germany and Austria, delivering to them to sponsor families in England. However, no such program existed for the children of Czechoslovakia.
So Winton started one.
He created stationery for The British Committee for Refugees of Czechoslovakia “Children’s Division” and used it to document his experiences with the refugees and their pleas to save the children. On these reports, Winton signed himself “chairman” of this new department.
Eventually, due to his persistence, the British government started to take his work seriously. However, bureaucratic processes held up the paperwork necessary to bring the children to England. As the situation in Czechoslovakia grew increasingly dire, there wasn’t time to spare. So Winton forged documents, set up bribes, and arranged secret contacts. He scouted foster families and sought funds from volunteers. When cash was short, he covered expenses out of his own pocket.
In mid-March 1939, the first 20 children were evacuated from Prague. Soon after, the Nazis officially took occupation of Czechoslovakia. More and more conflicted parents sent their children away, to be safely cared for by strangers in another country. Little ones boarding trains were told they were going on an adventure.
Over the next several months, a total of 669 children – nearly all of them orphans by the end of the war - left their homes and families to make the long journey arranged by Winton.
The last group departed the train station in Prague in early September, 1939, but was forced to go back. “None of those 250 children aboard [the train sent back to Prague] was ever seen again,” Winton recalled in an interview with The New York Times*.
The Nazis had just invaded Poland, commencing the start of World War II.
“Don’t be content in your life just to do no wrong, be prepared every day to try and do some good.”
- Nicholas Winton
For the next 50 years, Winton said nothing about the children he rescued. It wasn’t so much that he kept it a secret, he would say, but he just didn’t talk about it. Once the war started, he enlisted in the Royal Air Force and fought for his country. Then Winton went on to live a relatively simple, normal life. Work, marriage, family.
That is, until 1988, when his wife discovered a scrapbook in their attic. To her astonishment, it contained paperwork and photographs related to the children of the Kindertransport. When she pressed him for information, Winton was dismissive. No one would be interested in all of that old stuff after so many years, he insisted.
Famously humble, it didn’t occur to him that he was a hero, and people would indeed be interested.
However, his wife persisted. She shared the scrapbook with a Holocaust historian and from there, Winton’s identity gradually became known. He worked with the BBC to trace the lives of some of the children named in his book. Then there was an episode of the British talk show, That’s Life, where Winton’s actions were praised as he sat in the audience, unknowingly surrounded by people whose lives he saved. There was a Kindertransport Reunion in 2000, where he met many of the grown children, and their children, and their children’s children. Winton was also featured in the 2013 documentary, “Nicky’s Family,” with narration by the Canadian journalist Joe Schlesinger, one of the 669 children he rescued.
People who owed their lives to Winton kept coming forward. While it’s estimated that more than half of the children he helped evacuate may never know circumstances of their survival, nearly 300 of them grew into adults who realized the connection. Generously, many of them went public to share their incredible stories. The poet Gerda Maye. Geneticist Renata Laxova. British politician Lord Alfred Dubs. Filmmaker Karel Reisz. Vera Gissing, who went on to publish the diary she kept of growing up in England after leaving Czechoslovakia.
In an interview with the USC Shoah Foundation in 2015, Gissing vividly recalled the fateful family dinner when it was announced by her mother that Vera and her sister Eva could go to England: “Father suddenly looked very pale and drawn, and he buried his face in his hands, and then he sighed and said, ‘Alright, let them go.’”
Gissing said she’d never known anyone who had been to England and the prospect filled her with “excitement and apprehension.” She and her older sister would make the journey together, but they had separate destinations. Gissing was bound for Liverpool; Eva, to a school in Dorset.
Before the train departed for England on that anxious night, Gissing remembered impulsively crying out to her parents, “See you again in a free Czechoslovakia!” Fortunately, the German soldiers hadn’t understood her words. It was the last time her family would be together.
“If people lived an ethical life, there would be none of this business happening today.”
- Nicholas Winton
Earlier this month, NPR featured a story with Margit Goodman, one of the children who escaped Prague, just before the Nazi invasion. Goodman is now 94, and the altruism and courage of Winton and his work to rescue the children have profoundly influenced her and her family.
Currently, she and her daughter, Karen Goodman, both former social workers, are advocates for child refugees from Syria.
Along with many other former child refugees, the Goodmans are lobbying the U.K. to pass legislation that will allow into England unaccompanied Syrian children who have arrived in Europe. According to a brief Karen Goodman delivered to Parliament, 3,000 children could be rescued through such a program. A program like the one that saved her mother and fellow Czechoslovakian Kindertransport rescue, Lord Dubs, who penned this emergency amendment.
However, Prime Minister David Cameron spoke up against the bill and the legislation was voted down.
"My survival is entirely due to the extreme generosity of the British government in 1938," Leslie Brent, who was evacuated on one of the first the Kindertransports from Germany, told NPR. "And the contrast with the present government is quite pathetic."
After coming to England, Brent served as a captain in the British army during World War II. He later became a British citizen and earned a Ph.D., going on to become a world-renowned immunologist. He contributed to work on immunologic tolerance that won a Nobel Prize in 1960.
"I don't know anyone who came over on one of the Kindertransports who hasn't more than repaid the generosity of Britain in one way or another," he added. "And I have little doubt that these modern refugee children would act in the same way.”
Survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides have shared their stories and experiences in a collection of 53,000 two-hour audio-visual interviews with USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History.
ProQuest is honored to be in partnership with USC Visual History Archive to offer this material in its entirety to a broader audience and to contribute archival-quality transcripts of all of the testimonies.
* The article is only accessible to those with access to ProQuest Historical Newspapers - The New York Times through a library.