Nicholas Winton

Nicholas Winton

Nicholas Winton was born on 19th May 1909. He was born into a Jewish family but his parents later joined the Christian Church. After leaving school Winton found work at the London Stock Exchange.

In December 1938 Winton visited Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia, to see a friend, Martin Blake, who was working at the British Embassy. Czechoslovakia was a country that had been created in 1918 from territory that had previously been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As well as the seven million Czechs, two million Slovaks, 700,000 Hungarians and 450,000 Ruthenians there were three and a half million German speaking people living in Czechoslovakia.

Although Czechoslovakia had never been part of Germany, these people liked to call themselves Germans because of their language. Most of these people lived in the Sudetenland, an area on the Czechoslovakian border with Germany. The German speaking people complained that the Czech-dominated government discriminated against them. German's who had lost their jobs in the depression began to argue that they might be better off under the rule of Adolf Hitler.

In September 1938, Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, met Hitler at his home in Berchtesgaden. Hitler threatened to invade Czechoslovakia unless Britain supported Germany's plans to takeover the Sudetenland. After discussing the issue with the Edouard Daladier (France) and Eduard Benes (Czechoslovakia), Chamberlain informed Hitler that his proposals were unacceptable.

Benito Mussolini suggested to Hitler that one way of solving this issue was to hold a four-power conference of Germany, Britain, France and Italy. This would exclude both Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, and therefore increasing the possibility of reaching an agreement and undermine the solidarity that was developing against Nazi Germany.

The meeting took place in Munich on 29th September, 1938. Desperate to avoid war, and anxious to avoid an alliance with Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union, Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier agreed that Germany could have the Sudetenland. In return, Hitler promised not to make any further territorial demands in Europe. Adolf Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, Edouard Daladier and Benito Mussolini signed the Munich Agreement which transferred the Sudetenland to Germany.

When Eduard Benes, Czechoslovakia's head of state, protested at this decision, Neville Chamberlain told him that Britain would be unwilling to go to war over the issue of the Sudetenland. The German Army marched into the Sudetenland on 1st October, 1938. As this area contained nearly all the country's mountain fortifications, she was no longer able to defend herself against further aggression.

Jewish people living in the Sudetenland, fearing Nazi persecution, fled to Prague. At that time Martin Blake was involved in helping people in refugee camps in Czechoslovakia. Winton became convinced that it was vitally important to try and help these people. Winton later recalled: "The Germans were in Prague, and the Germans were only too willing to get rid of these children. You must remember that at that time the Germans never thought they were going to be at war with Great Britain and vice versa. So, from the German point of view there was really very little difficulty."

Nicholas Winton with one of the Jewish children he saved.
Nicholas Winton with one of the Jewish children he saved.

Winton decided to set up an office at the Sroubek Hotel in Wenceslas Square. Winton was visited by Jewish parents who asked him if he could help their children escape from the feared Nazi invasion. Winton appointed Trevor Chadwick and Bill Barazetti to look after the arrangements in Prague and returned to London where he joined forces with the Refugee Children's Movement (RCM) in London. The mission of this organization was to locate the lodging and money that the British government required as warranties to approve the entry of European refugees, persecuted by Nazism.

As Winton pointed out: "The only problem was to get permits for the children to enter England and to fulfill the conditions which were laid down by the Home Office, which was that I could only bring in a child if I had a family that would look after them." Winton visited the Home Office and the British government agreed that they would allow political refugees younger than 17 years old as long as they had a place to stay and had £50 as warranty of the payment of the return ticket. Winton main task was to find foster parents and to raise the money needed to bring the children to Britain.

Winton returned to work at the Stock Exchange but devoted his evenings to trying to rescue the children from Czechoslovakia. He established an organization, "The British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, Children's Section." The committee consisted of himself, his mother, his secretary and a few volunteers. Winton advertised in British newspapers for potential sponsors and foster families.

The first group of 15 children were flown out via Sweden on 14th March, 1939. The following day the German Army invaded Czechoslovakia on 15th March, 1939. Over the next few months Winton arranged for 669 children to get out of the country on eight trains. A ninth train containing 250 children was due to leave Prague on 1st September, 1939. However, that day Adolf Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland and all borders controlled by Germany were closed.

On 3rd September, Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, declared was on Nazi Germany. The new German administration responded by refusing to allow the train to leave from Prague. Winton later recalled that: "None of the 250 children on board 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."

Vera Gissing was one of the children saved by Winton. She later commented: "He rescued the greater part of the Jewish children of my generation in Czechoslovakia. Very few of us met our parents again: they perished in concentration camps. Had we not been spirited away, we would have been murdered alongside them."

Alice Klimova, who was 11 years old at the time, was another child saved by Winton: "My sister was too old. She was already sixteen, so I went instead of her." Other children saved included Karel Reisz, Alf Dubs, Milena Grenfell-Baines and Joe Schlesinger.

Nicholas Winton as an ambulance driver in France in 1940.
Nicholas Winton as an ambulance driver in France in 1940.

After the Second World War Winton worked for Abbeyfield Society, a charity that provides housing with support or care for older people. In 1983 Winton was awarded the MBE for his charity work.

Winton's wife discovered a scrapbook in the attic in 1988 that included all the children's photos, a complete list of names and a few letters from parents of the children to Winton. After he told her the full story this information was passed to Elisabeth Maxwell, a Holocaust historian. Eventually, Winton was featured in the TV programme, That's Life. The presenter, Esther Rantzen arranged for Winton to meet some of the children he rescued from Czechoslovakia.

Winton was awarded the Freedom of the City of Prague, and on 28th October, 1998, Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic, awarded him the Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk.

Winton was the subject of two films by Czech filmmaker Matej Mináč. The first was a feature film, All My Loved Ones (1999). This was followed by the documentary film The Power of Good: Nicholas Winton (2002). Later that year Sir Nicholas Winton was awarded a knighthood in the New Year's honours list.

Nicholas Winton, Elizabeth Maxwell and Matej Mináč in 1999
Nicholas Winton, Elizabeth Maxwell and Matej Mináč in 1999

The Bratislava History Project was launched in October 2008. This is a joint project between British and Slovak school children researching aspects of joint recent history. The project brings together the British Council’s Dreams and Teams school twinning initiative which seeks to encourage leadership and citizenship skills and the European History e-Learning Project, an European Commission's Socrates funded project that promotes the use of ICT in the history classroom. The project is coordinated by Richard Jones-Nerzic of the British International School in Bratislava.

Sir Nicholas Winton, Joe Schlesinger, Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines, Lord Alfred Dubs and Vera Gissing will be interviewed by a small group of students. After the event, the students will collaborate to produce a website of their videos and research, along with a documentary of the day. The website is intended to be used by schools in the future as a curriculum resource, but also as a model of best practice in the application of ICT in European school collaboration projects.

Nicholas Winton - In the Presence of Good from British School Bratislava on Vimeo.

Primary Sources

(1) Jewish News (1st February, 2002)

For nearly half a century, Englishman Nicholas Winton kept quiet about the lives of 669 children he saved during the few months before World War II. His secret was revealed in 1988 when his wife Greta, who has since died, discovered a scrapbook in their attic containing children's names and photographs and letters written by their parents.

The story behind this scrapbook is told in "The Power of Good: Nicholas Winton," a documentary that describes how Winton rescued children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and arranged for them to travel through Hitler's Germany to Britain.

A video screening of this documentary will be shown during a pre-opening reception of the Phoenix Jewish Film Festival at 7:45 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16, at the Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum of Temple Beth Israel.

Director Matej Minac, who also wrote and directed last year's film festival hit "All My Loved Ones," will speak after the screening. "All My Loved Ones" tells the story of a Czech Jewish family from which the 10-year-old boy becomes a "Winton child" - and the family's only Holocaust survivor.

Minac first learned about Winton in 1998 from a few sentences in "Pearls of Childhood," a memoir written by British author Vera Gissing. He was intrigued by the story and wrote a treatment for a feature film, part of it based on those two paragraphs.

He contacted Gissing, who disclosed that she was one of "Winton's children" and introduced him to Winton.

Minac was surprised that Winton - 90 years old at the time - was "in perfect shape and he remembered everything perfectly."

Winton agreed to share his story with Minac.

In 1938, Winton, then a 29-year-old London stockbroker, was ready to leave for a skiing holiday in Switzerland when he received a call from a friend asking him to cancel his trip and instead travel to Prague, the capital of former Czechoslovakia.

Convinced that war was imminent and heartbroken by a visit to a refugee camp during this visit, Winton, with the assistance of a few volunteers, started an operation to send refugee children from Prague to families in Britain. He interviewed hundreds of distraught parents and made arrangements for their children to live with foster families; he had no further contact with the parents - or the children - once they left the railroad station.

Nicholas Winton with some of the children he saved.
Nicholas Winton with some of the children he saved.

(2) BBC News (1st February, 2008)

Nominations for the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize close on Friday, and among the entrants is a 98-year-old Briton, Sir Nicholas Winton, who transported 700 Jewish children to the UK before WWII.

The BBC's Allan Little visited Prague to witness the legacy of a man known as the "British Schindler".

In a school room in southern Bohemia, a class of teenagers sit mesmerised by a film about a young Englishman who came to their country a long time ago and did something so remarkable - brave as well as honourable - that 70 years later they petitioned the authorities to rename their school.

It is, now, the Sir Nicholas Winton School.

In the spring of 1939, the young Nicholas Winton cancelled a skiing holiday in Switzerland and, at the urging of a friend, went to Prague instead.

The city was full of people who had fled their homes in the wake of the Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland.

Nicholas Winton was particularly shocked by the condition of the children: many of them he found living in squalid - and freezing - refugee camps.

He resolved to do something about it.

With a group of others he drew up a list of children whose parents would agree to send them to Britain until the emergency - however long it was to last - was over.

When his list was complete there were 5,000 names on it.

He lobbied the Home Office in London. They said he could bring as many children as he liked, provided he could find foster families for them, and provided they went home when it was safe to do so.

The Winton group then advertised for families. "It wasn't the ideal way to place children," he told me, 70 years later.

"But if someone wrote to say they could take, say, a girl aged seven, then we sent some pictures of girls aged seven and said 'choose one'.

"Not ideal, but it did work and it was quick."