Wednesday 29 October 2014

Britain is still a country for and says "Bravo" to its old and much loved humanitarian, Nicholas Winton

Nicholas, a wonderful example of what can be achieved by selfless determination and is now 105 years old, yesterday flew to the Czech Republic to receive the country's highest honour, the 'Order of the White Lion', from the President, in recognition of his saving, though his 'kindertransport', 669 Jewish children from certain death under the Nazis in 1939.

Although he has now outlived many of the children he saved, 6000 people are alive today because of the success of his efforts in Central Europe on the brink of the Second World War, 75 years ago.


* was born in 1909 in Hampstead, London, the son of German Jewish parents called 'Wertheim', who had taken the name 'Winton' and converted to Christianity and at the age of 14 in 1923, went to the newly-opened Stowe School and on leaving, worked for Midland Bank, then went to Hamburg and worked at Behrens Bank, followed by Wasserman Bank in Berlin.

* in 1931, at the age of 22, moved to France and worked for the Banque Nationale de Crédit in Paris, then returned to London and became a Stock Exchange broker and at 29 before Christmas 1938, was planning to travel to Switzerland for a skiing with his friend, Martin Blake,  working for the 'British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia' trying to help those perceived 'opponents' of the Nazis fleeing from the recently occupied Sudetenland region of the country.

* cancelled the holiday after a phone call from Martin : "I have a most interesting assignment and need your help. Don't bother bringing your skis" and at his request, joined him in Prague, visited families living in appalling conditions in refugee camps and finding no plan the get the children out, set up office using the dining room table in his hotel room in Wenceslas Square in Prague and then an office with school teacher, Thomas Chadwick, used to distribute questionnaires and register the children.

*  returned to England, visited the Home Office and found each child had to have a £50 guarantee to pay for re-immigration and a foster family to take them in and on receiving photos and names of children, advertised in papers and worked with organisations, like the Quakers, to find foster families while continuing to work at the Stock Exchange.

* devoted late afternoons and evenings to rescue efforts, often working deep into the night, with his Mother as secretary and a few volunteers and pretended to be more 'official' by taking stationery from the 'British Committee' and adding 'Children's Section' to its header, making himself 'Chairman'.

* found that "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" and also paid off officials : "It took a bit of blackmail on my part. It worked. That's the main thing."

* successfully organised 8 transports, the first by plane and then train and on September 1, 1939 found the biggest, cancelled when Hitler invaded Poland and all borders controlled by Germany were closed and carried with him the picture of hundreds of children waiting eagerly at Wilson Station in Prague."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."

* served as an ambulance driver in the Army at the start of the War, before serving in the Royal Air Force and then trained pilots after the War, before working for mentally handicapped people and building homes for the elderly for the Abbeyfield Society and in 1983 was awarded the MBE for his work and saw the retirement village in Windsor, appropriately named 'Winton House'.

* was given a scrapbook at the end of the Second World War as a momento of what he had done, and in the years that followed said of his War work : "I didn't really keep it secret. I just didn't  talk about it." which remained the case until he was 57 in 1988, when his wife, Grete, found the scrapbook in the attic, with the children's photos, list of names and a few letters from parents of the children to him and shared the story with Dr. Elisabeth Maxwell, a Holocaust historian and wife of newspaper magnate, Robert Maxwell who arranged for the Sunday Mirror to publish articles on his deeds.
* made an appearance on Esther Rantzen's BBC tv programme, 'That's Life', in 1988 who asked "whether any in the audience owed their lives to him ? and, if so, to stand", at which point more than two dozen people surrounding him rose and applauded and because the programme was aired nationwide, many other rescued children wrote to and thanked him :

* saw his story become the subject of two films by Czech filmmaker Matej Mináč: 'All My Loved Ones' and the award-winning 'Nicholas Winton: The Power of Good' and met Bill Clinton at the New York Premier when he was 93 in 2002, who, as a luminary, was his favourite, because :"You could have a proper conversation with him."

* added commentary to a 96 minute long documentary 'Nicky's Family' released in 2013

* 2013  saw 120,000 children in the Czech Republic sign a petition to request he be awarded the 'Nobel Peace Prize'.

* this year had his story told by the US tv programme '60 Minutes : Sir Nicholas Winton "Saving the Children" : and in May, saw his daughter Barbara publish his life story,'If it's Not Impossible'.
* in  2003, had a bronze statue put up outside Liverpool St station, depict the children he rescued and a thousand kms away in 2009 had a bronze statue holding two of the children erected in his honour in Prague Central Station, while 2010, saw a bronze life sized statue placed on the platform at his local Maidenhead Railway Station, showing him reading a book with images of the children and the trains he used to save them.

* once said with perfect understatement :
"I just saw what was going on and did what I could to help."and his quietly stated humanity : "If people lived together, for the moment, their religion : the fundamental ethics of goodness, decency, love, honour. The world we be a different place."

In Wednesday I  tweeted a link to this post to Roger Cohen, a journalist at the New York Times, for which he thanked me and the next day produced a moving article in the Times entitled :
An Old Man in Prague
The Discretion of Nicholas Winton


  1. Beautiful tribute to an incredibly inspiring man!

  2. Thank you Nicky indeed thank you twice over for saving my two cousins Eva and Anita in 1939. They became our sisters in Harpenden 1939-45.... never saw their parents again. BUT their three children , six grandchildren and four great grandchildren bring us great joy!

  3. I am another cousin of Eva and Anita. Neither are alive today but without Sr Nicholas neither would their great grandchildren.