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 were interviewed by a small group of students. After the event, the students collaborated to produce a website of their videos and research, along with a documentary of the day.

Nicholas Winton died aged 106 on 1st July, 2015.

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."

(3) Stephen Bates, The Guardian (1st July, 2015)

Winton came from a wealthy Anglo-Bavarian Jewish family that had emigrated to England in the 19th century. By the time he was born, to Rudolph and Barbara Wertheim - the surname was anglicised only in 1938 – the family had converted to Christianity. He was one of the first pupils to be educated at newly founded Stowe school in Buckinghamshire. After leaving he joined a bank and then, in 1931, became a stockbroker.

In December 1938 he received a call from his friend, Martin Blake, a schoolmaster, asking him to cancel their planned skiing trip to Switzerland that Christmas and urging him to meet him in Prague instead. Winton arrived on New Year’s Eve and was introduced by Blake to the organisers of the recently formed British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia. The city was filling up with an estimated 250,000 people, many of them Jewish, who were fleeing Germany, Austria and the German-speaking Sudetenland, which the Nazis had annexed the previous October. Others were from political families and opponents of the Nazis. Their living conditions in camps were pitiful and most were clamouring to get away.

Winton became determined to at least help the children of some of the families. He started taking names, and found his room at the Europa hotel in Wenceslas Square was besieged by families, queuing all day in the freezing cold to get their names on the list. Winton and his colleagues, Doreen Warriner, organiser of the committee, and Trevor Chadwick, took photographs and details of the children and began to organise their evacuation. The first flight of 20 left in January 1939, sponsored by an organisation called the Barbican Mission, whose intention was to convert them to Christianity. Winton, who was not personally religious, saw his priority over the coming months as helping to get the children out rather than converting them, but he would subsequently brusquely ask rabbis who lobbied him whether they would prefer the children to be dead or alive.

Winton went back to London after three weeks with a long list of children and, after his day’s work in the City, returned home to Hampstead each evening to organise permits and travel warrants for them to leave Prague and come to England. It was not a straightforward matter: the British bureaucracy was complacent and slow, believing there was no urgency as war was deemed unlikely, and the government demanded bonds of £50 – no small sum in those days – to sponsor the children. The arrangements were, nevertheless, better than those of countries such as the US and Australia, to whom Winton appealed in vain. “If America had only agreed to take them too, I could have saved at least 2,000 more,” he said.

Frustrated by the slowness of the British authorities, Winton made newspaper appeals and personally organised the children’s placements, with no time for checking suitability or haggling over who should go where. As the situation in Czechoslovakia grew more desperate following the German occupation of the entire country in March 1939, he took to forging the Home Office entry permits. That summer eight rail transports were conducted. A ninth Kindertransport, which was due to leave on 1 September 1939 with 250 more children, was cancelled by the Germans, and most of those who would have been on board were subsequently transported to concentration camps. Nevertheless, Winton and his colleagues had saved at least 664 children: 561 of them Jewish, 52 Unitarians, 34 Catholics and 17 others.

(4) The Daily Telegraph (1st July, 2015)

Winton’s heroic wartime activity emerged in 1988 when the story, based on the contents of a scrapbook containing lists of the children and letters from their parents, was published in The Sunday Mirror. Winton had previously said little about his rescue mission.

His role as “Britain’s Schindler” began shortly before Christmas 1938, when a skiing holiday he had been planning had fallen through and he was invited to visit Prague by a Left-wing schoolmaster friend, who suggested that Winton join him in “a most interesting assignment”.

Prague at the time was home to most of the 118,000 Jews in the Czech-speaking area of Czechoslovakia, and the city was in the grip of a refugee crisis. Nazi troops had occupied the Sudetenland, and thousands of Jews from the region were pouring into Prague.

Those who had nowhere to stay were living in squalid camps, and when Winton arrived British relief workers asked him to lend a hand. He spent only a couple of months in Prague but became alarmed for the future of the children in the camps, for whom nothing seemed to be being done.

On his own initiative, he set up an office at a dining-room table in his hotel in Wenceslas Square, and early in 1939 launched the Czech Kindertransport. Word soon spread and parents flocked to the hotel to try to persuade him to put their children on the list, desperate to get them out before the Nazis invaded.

In three weeks, Winton compiled a list of 6,000 children who would face almost certain death under the Nazis, and established a group of sympathisers to arrange their transportation from Czechoslovakia.

Back in London, Winton worked by day at the Stock Exchange and at night returned to a small room in Hampstead that had become his operations centre. Working with the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia and the Czechoslovak travel agency Cedok, he arranged transport and lobbied western governments to accept the children. Only Britain and Sweden agreed, and then somewhat grudgingly.

For each child Winton had to find a foster parent and a £50 guarantee, a lot of money in those days. He also had to raise money to help pay the travel costs when the children’s parents could not afford to pay. “I appointed myself honorary secretary of the British Council for Refugees from Czechoslovakia and advertised for families in Picture Post,” Winton recalled. “I wouldn’t say the council was very happy with its new arm, but there wasn’t much they could do about it. Eventually they gave me a small amount of funding, but not until it was really too late.”

When the Nazis extended their control to the whole of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Winton became so desperate at Home Office delays in issuing entry papers that he resorted to forgery. In nine months of campaigning, he arranged for 669 children to get out on eight trains from Prague to London (a small group of 15 were flown out via Sweden). As the exhausted children arrived at Liverpool Street station to be collected by their English foster parents, Winton watched from a distance.

“Inside I was cheering like a football match, but outwardly I was calm and quiet,” he recalled. “I knew that for every Jewish child safely deposited on the platform that day, there were hundreds more still trapped in Czechoslovakia. And I knew that because I was organising this emigration entirely on my own, I wouldn’t be able to bring out a fraction of those in such terrible danger.”

The importance of the Kindertransports became clear after the war when it emerged that none of the children’s parents had survived. The ninth train - the biggest transport - had been due to leave Prague on September 3 1939, the day on which Britain entered the war. “Within hours of the announcement, the train disappeared,” Winton recalled. “None of the 250 children on board was heard of again, which is an awful feeling.”

(5) Adam Withnall, The Independent (1st July, 2015)

Sir Nicholas Winton, the man known as the "British Oskar Schindler" who saved more than 600 Jewish children from the Holocaust, has died aged 106.

Sir Nicholas rescued the children in Czechoslovakia at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, organising for British families to take them in instead of letting them be sent to concentration camps...

An unassuming hero, Sir Nicholas kept details of the operation secret for half a century – not even his wife and children were aware of his extraordinary rescue effort in an operation dubbed the Czech Kindertransport.

His efforts to save the children went largely unnoticed for almost 50 years, until he was reunited with a number of the children for an edition of the TV show That's Life in 1988.

Sir Nicholas' son-in-law, Stephen Watson, said he died peacefully in his sleep at Wexham Hospital in Slough.

His son Nick said of his father’s legacy: “It is about encouraging people to make a difference and not waiting for something to be done or waiting for someone else to do it. It’s what he tried to tell people in all his speeches and in the book written by my sister.”

Last October Sir Nicholas was awarded the Order of the White Lion, Czech Republic’s highest honour, from President Milos Zeman at a ceremony at Prague Castle. Sir Nicholas said he was delighted to receive it.

“I want to thank you all for this tremendous expression of thanks for something which happened to me nearly 100 years ago,” he joked upon receiving the award. “And 100 years is a heck of a long time.”

He gave credit to the many foster parents who made the mission possible. “I thank the British people for making room for them, to accept them and of course, the enormous help given by so many Czechs who were at that time doing what they could to fight the Germans and to try and get the children out,” Sir Nicholas said.