Sir Nicholas Winton (1909 – 2015)

With it being almost a year since his passing, I thought it would be good to pay tribute to him by dedicating this article to Sir Nicholas Winton, who was best known for rescuing 669 children on the eve of the Second World War.

To pay my full respects and tribute to him, I will be taking a full look-back on his life as it unfolded, as well as the timeline of events that took place up until his death on the 1st July 2015.

Sir Nicholas George Winton MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) [born Nicholas George Wertheim] {19th May 1909 – 1st July 2015}

Sir Nicholas Winton was a British humanitarian who had organised the rescue of 669 children, most of them of which were Jewish, and from Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Second World War, in an operation, which was later known as the Czech Kindertransport (which is German for “children transportation”).

Nicholas Winton had found homes for the children and had arranged for their safe passage to Britain, and the world had found out about his work over 40 years later, in 1988. The British Press had dubbed him the “British Schindler”, and on the 28th October 2014, he was awarded the highest honour of the Czech Republic, the Order of the White Lion (1st Class), by the Czech President, Miloš Zeman.

Sir Nicholas Winton’s Early Life

Born on the 19th May 1909 in Hampstead, in London, he was the son of the bank manager, Rudolph Wertheim, and his wife, Barbara (née Wertheimer). The family name was originally Wertheim, but they had later changed it to Winton in an effort at integration. They had also converted to Christianity, and Nicholas Winton was baptised.

In 1923, Nicholas Winton had entered Stowe School, which had just opened, and he left without qualifications, and attended night school whilst he was volunteering at the Midland Bank. He had then gone on to Hamburg, where he had worked at the Behrens Bank, which was then followed by the Wasserman Bank in Berlin. In 1931, he had moved to France and had worked for the Banque Nationale de Crédit in Paris, and he had also earned a banking qualification in France.

On his return to London, Nicholas Winton had become a broker at the London Stock Exchange. Though he was a stockbroker, Winton was also “an ardent socialist who became close to Labour Party luminaries Aneurin Bevan, Jennie Lee and Tom Driberg.” Through another socialist friend, Martin Blake, Nicholas Winton had become a part of a leftwing circle, which was opposed to appeasement, and was concerned about the dangers posed by the Nazis.

At school, he had become an outstanding fencer, and was also selected for the British team in 1938, and although he had hoped to compete in the next Olympics, they were sadly cancelled as a result of the Second World War.

Sir Nicholas Winton’s Rescue Work

Shortly before the Christmas of 1938, Nicholas Winton was planning to travel to Switzerland for a skiing holiday, but had instead decided to visit Prague to help Martin Blake, who was in Prague as an associate for the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, then, in the process of being occupied by Germany, and had called Nicholas Winton to ask him to assist in doing Jewish welfare work.

Nicholas Winton had single-handedly established an organisation which would aid the children from the Jewish families that were at risk from the Nazis. He had set up his office at a dining room table in his hotel in Wenceslas Square, and in November 1938, following the Kristallnacht in Nazi-ruled Germany, the House of Commons had approved a measure, which would allow the entry of refugees younger than 17 into Britain, provided that they would have a place to stay, including a warranty of £50 that would be deposited for their eventual return to their own country.

The Netherlands

The most important obstacle was getting official permission to cross into the Netherlands, as the children were to embark on the ferry at Hoek van Holland (Hook of Holland). After the Kristallnacht in November 1938, the Dutch government had officially closed its borders to any of the Jewish refugees. The border guards, the marechaussees, had searched for them, and returned any that they found to Germany, despite the horrors of the Kristallnacht being well known.

Nicholas Winton had succeeded, thanks to the guarantees that he had obtained from Britain, and after the first train, the process of crossing the Netherlands had gone smoothly. Winton had ultimately found homes for the 669 children in Britain, many of whose parents would sadly perish in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. His mother had worked with him to place the children in homes, and later on in hostels.

Throughout the Summer of 1939, Nicholas Winton had placed photographs of the children in the Picture Post, which would seek families in order to accept them. He had also written to the U.S. politicians, such as Franklin Roosevelt, asking them for the children to live in a safe haven. He had also said that 2,000 more might have been saved if they had helped, but only Sweden had taken any besides those that were sent to Britain. The last group of 250, which were scheduled to leave Prague on the 1st September 1939, were unable to depart, and with Hitler’s invasion of Poland occurring on the same day, the Second World War had begun, with nearly all of the children in that group perishing during the war.

Nicholas Winton had acknowledged the vital roles of Beatrice Wellington, Doreen Warriner, Trevor Chadwick, and many others in Prague who had also worked to evacuate the children from Europe. Winton was only in Prague for about three weeks before the Nazis had occupied the country, though he had never set foot in Prague Station. He later wrote that: “Chadwick did the more difficult and dangerous work after the Nazis invaded… he deserves all praise”.

The Notable People that Sir Nicholas Winton Saved

  • Alf Dubs, Baron Dubs (born 1932), the British Labour Party politician and former Member of Parliament
  • Heini Halberstam (1926–2014), a mathematician
  • Renata Laxova (born 1931), a pediatric geneticist
  • Gerda Mayer (born 1927), a poet
  • Karel Reisz (1926–2002), a filmmaker
  • Joe Schlesinger (born 1928), a Canadian television journalist and author
  • Yitzchok Tuvia Weiss (born 1926), the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem

Out of the 669 children that were saved from the Holocaust through Sir Nicholas Winton’s efforts, more than 370 were never traced, and BBC News had suggested last year that they may not know the full story of how they survived the war.

The Second World War

After the outbreak of the Second World War, Nicholas Winton had applied successfully for registration as a conscientious objector, and had later served with the Red Cross, and in 1940, he had rescinded his objections and had later joined the Royal Air Force, Administrative and Special Duties Branch. He was an aircraft man, and had risen to sergeant by the time he was commissioned on the 22nd June 1944 as an acting pilot officer on probation.

On the 17th August 1944, Nicholas Winton was promoted to pilot officer on probation, and he was promoted to the rank of being a war substantive flying officer on the 17th February 1945. He had then relinquished his commission on the 19th May 1954, where he would retain the honorary rank of being a flight lieutenant.

Post-War – Sir Nicholas Winton’s Marriage, His Recognition & His 100th Birthday

After the Second World War had ended, Nicholas Winton had worked for the International Refugee Organisation and then for the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Paris, where he had met Grete Gjelstrup, a Danish secretary and accountant’s daughter. They had both married in her hometown of Vejle on the 31st October 1948. The couple had then settled in Maidenhead in England, where they had brought up their three children, and he stood, unsuccessfully, for the town council in 1954. Winton had later found work in the finance departments of various companies.

It was often wrongly reported that Nicholas Winton had suppressed his humanitarian exploits for many years, despite mentioning them in his election material while unsuccessfully standing for election to the town council in 1954. In 1988, his wife had found a detailed scrapbook in their attic, which contained the lists of the children, including their parents’ names and the names and addresses of the families that had taken them in.

She had given the scrapbook to Elisabeth Maxwell, who was the Holocaust researcher and wife of the media magnate, Robert Maxwell. Winton himself couldn’t remember the reason for why this was done. Letters were sent to each of these known addresses, and 80 of “Winton’s children” were found in Britain.

The wider world had found out about his work in February 1988, during an episode of the BBC television programme: “That’s Life!”, when he was invited as a member of the audience. At one point, Nicholas Winton’s scrapbook was shown and his achievements were explained, and the host of the programme, Esther Rantzen, had asked whether anybody in the audience had owed their lives to Winton, and if so, to stand. More than two-dozen of the people who had surrounded Nicholas Winton had risen and applauded him.

To celebrate his 100th birthday, Sir Nicholas Winton had flown over the White Waltham Airfield in a microlight, which was piloted by Judy Leden, who was the daughter of one of the boys he had saved, and his birthday was also marked by the publication of a profile in The Jewish Chronicle.

Sir Nicholas Winton’s Death

Sir Nicholas Winton died peacefully in his sleep on the morning of the 1st July 2015 at Wexham Park Hospital in Slough from cardio-respiratory failure, having been admitted a week earlier following a decline in his health. He was 106 years old. His death had also come 76 years to the day after 241 of the 669 children he had saved had left Prague on a train, and a special report from BBC News on several of the children whom he had rescued during the war had been published earlier that day.

Honours

In the 1983 Queen’s Birthday Honours, Nicholas Winton was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his work in establishing the Abbeyfield homes for the elderly in Britain, and in the 2003 New Year Honours, he was knighted in recognition for his work on the Czech Kindertransport. He met the Queen again during her state visit to Bratislava, Slovakia, in October 2008, and in 2003, Nicholas Winton had received the Pride of Britain Award for Lifetime Achievement. In 2010, Nicholas Winton was named a British Hero of the Holocaust by the British Government.

Nicholas Winton was awarded the Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Fourth Class, by the Czech President, Václav Havel, in 1998, and in 2008, he was honoured by the Czech Government in several ways. An elementary school in Kunžak was named after him, and he was awarded the Cross of Merit of the Minister of Defence, Grade I. The Czech Government had nominated him for the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize. The minor planet, 19384 Winton, was named in his honour by the Czech astronomers, Jana Tichá and Miloš Tichý.

A statue of Nicholas Winton stands on Platform 1 of the Praha hlavní nádraží railway station. Created by Flor Kent, it was unveiled on the 1st September 2009, as part of a larger commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of the last Kindertransport train. There are also three memorials at Liverpool Street Station in London, where the Kindertransport children had arrived, and in September 2010, another statue of Sir Nicholas Winton was unveiled, but this time at the Maidenhead Railway Station by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, who is the MP (Member of Parliament) for Maidenhead. Created by Lydia Karpinska, it depicts Nicholas Winton sitting on a bench whilst reading a book.

Nicholas Winton was baptised as a Christian by his parents, but his Jewish ancestry had disqualified him from being declared a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Israel, and as an adult, he was not active in any particular religion. In a 2015 interview, Sir Nicholas Winton had told Stephen Sackur that he had become disillusioned with religion during the war, as he could not reconcile the religious movements for “praying for victory on both sides of the same war”. Nicholas Winton had gone on to describe his personal beliefs, by saying that: “I believe in ethics, and if everybody believed in ethics we’d have no problems at all. That’s the only way out; forget the religious side.”

Sir Nicholas Winton had received the Wallenberg Medal on the 27th June 2013 in London, and the following year, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation had established a literary competition that was named after Winton. The contest is for essays that are by high school students about Nicholas Winton’s legacy. Sir Nicholas Winton was awarded the Freedom of the City of London on the 23rd February 2015.

The Winton Train

On the 1st September 2009, a special “Winton Train” had set off from the Prague Main Railway Station, and the train, which composed of one or two steam locomotives (out of a set of six) and carriages used in the 1930s, headed to London via the original Kindertransport route. On board were the several surviving “Winton children” and their descendants, who were welcomed by Sir Nicholas Winton in London. This occasion had marked the 70th Anniversary of the last intended Kindertransport, which was due to set off on the 3rd September 1939, but was prevented as a result of the outbreak of the Second World War. At the train’s departure, a memorial statue for Sir Nicholas Winton, which was designed by Flor Kent, was unveiled at the railway station.

The Order of the White Lion

On the 19th May 2014, on Sir Nicholas Winton’s 105th birthday, it was announced that he was to receive the Czech Republic’s highest honour, for giving the Czech children: “the greatest possible gift: the chance to live and to be free”, and on the 28th October 2014, Sir Nicholas Winton was awarded to the Order of the White Lion (Class I) by the Czech President, Miloš Zeman, the Czech Defence Ministry having sent a special aircraft to bring him to Prague.

This award was made alongside the one to Sir Winston Churchill, which was accepted by his grandson, Nicholas Soames, and Zeman had said that he had regretted the highest Czech award having been awarded to the two personalities so belatedly, but he had added: “better late than never”. Sir Nicholas Winton was also able to meet some of the people that he had rescued 75 years previous, themselves then in their 80s. He had then said: “I want to thank you all for this enormous expression of thanks for something which happened to me nearly 100 years ago—and a 100 years is a heck of a long time. I am delighted that so many of the children are still about and are here to thank me.”

Popular Culture

Sir Nicholas Winton’s work is the subject of three different films by the Slovak film-maker, Matej Mináč, the drama, All My Loved Ones (1999), in which Sir Nicholas Winton was played by Rupert Graves, the documentary, The Power of Good: Nicholas Winton (Síla lidskosti—Nicholas Winton, 2002), which had won an Emmy Award, and the docu-drama, Nicky’s Family (Nickyho rodina, 2011).

A play that was about Sir Nicholas Winton, Numbers from Prague, was performed in Cambridge in January 2011, and Winton was featured in the 2000 Warner Brothers documentary, which was written and directed by Mark Jonathan Harris, and was produced by Deborah Oppenheimer, Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, which received the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and the film’s accompanying book of the same name.

When he spoke on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, on the 28th October 2014, Sir Nicholas Winton had said that he thought that he had “made a difference to a lot of people”, and had gone on to say that: “I don’t think we’ve learned anything… the world today is in a more dangerous situation than it has ever been.”

This tribute article on Sir Nicholas Winton comes to a remarkable close. He was a remarkable icon of our time who saved those 669 children from the worst of things, and I want this article to be a way of remembering him for all of the good things that he did during his time. He deserved to be made an MBE and also a Sir, so to Sir Nicholas Winton, you will never be forgotten, and you shall always remain in our hearts, in our minds, but also, with the footprints you left on our heart. You will forever be remembered in our hearts.

Alex Smithson

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