Sir Nicholas Winton, humanitarian - obituary.
British humanitarian celebrated for rescuing hundreds of children from the Nazis on the eve of the Second World War
Sir Nicholas Winton, who has died aged 106, saved the lives of 669 children, most of them Jewish, from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939; but his achievement long went unrecognised and for 50 years few of the children knew their saviour’s name.
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 few 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.”
Those who owed their lives to Winton included the writer Vera Gissing (who went on to co-write Winton’s biography), Karel Reisz, the film-maker who directed The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Lord (Alf) Dubs, the Labour politician, and Dagmar Simova, cousin of the Czech-born former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Nicholas Winton was born Nicholas Wertheim in West Hampstead on May 19 1909, the son of a businessman involved in importing Bohemian glassware. His paternal grandparents, who were German Jews, had settled in Britain in the 1860s. His mother had arrived from Germany in 1907. They changed their name to Winton in 1938.
Nicholas was baptised and brought up a Christian and, although he lost his faith, he was always ambivalent about his Jewish ancestry, feeling that too much conflict was caused by religions dwelling on their differences rather than on shared ethics. “When I set out to try and bring children from Czechoslovakia,” he said later, “I didn’t do it because they were Jewish children. I did it because they were children.”
Educated at Stowe, where he excelled at fencing and enjoyed maths, Winton left school without the required exam grades to go to university and instead continued his studies at evening classes while serving an apprenticeship at a bank. He started work in the City with the bankers S Japhet, then moved to various banking jobs in Hamburg, Berlin and Paris, becoming fluent in German and French. In 1931 he returned to London where, after a short stint with the Anglo Czech Bank, he joined Ullman & Co, developing their stock exchange and foreign exchange activities. He moved to Vandervelts in 1936, then to Crews & Co, and was admitted a member of the Stock Exchange in 1937. In 1938 he was chosen for selection to the British fencing team for the Olympics.
From the mid-1930s, Winton had become aware of strange goings-on in Germany as friends and relatives began turning up at his parents’ house without luggage nor presents. Vehemently anti-war at the time, Winton and a Left-wing Westminster schoolmaster friend, Martin Blake, attended meetings of the pacifist Peace Pledge Union.
In late 1938, the two were due to go on a skiing holiday together when Blake rang him to say he had cancelled the holiday and intended to go to Prague, and suggested that Winton do the same.
After Britain entered the war and the Kindertransports came to an end, Winton volunteered for the Red Cross as an ambulance driver. He served in France with the BEF, was evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk, and was constantly on call in Coventry during the German bombing of 1941.
Still in uniform, he decided to look up his old boss at Crews & Co, who said that the best thing would be to make terms with Hitler. Disgusted by this attitude and affected by his experiences in Czechoslovakia and as an ambulance driver, Winton began to move away from pacifism and applied to join the RAF. He had taken flying lessons before the war, and had qualified as a pilot in 1933, but his eyesight had deteriorated and he was rejected for active service. Instead he was taken on as a flying instructor and sent in 1944 to La Rochelle, where he achieved the rank of flight lieutenant.
After demob in 1946, Winton became assistant to Abba Schwartz, the Reparations Director of the Intergovernmental Committee for Refugees in Geneva. A few months later, he was given the task of organising the sale of Nazi booty found in the American zone of occupied Germany — most of the money raised went to Jewish organisations. He was also assigned the grisly task of organising the smelting and refining of precious metals contained in items forcibly abandoned by victims before entering the gas chambers.
In 1948 Winton joined the International Bank in Paris and was given the job of ensuring that money lent to the shattered economies of Europe was not used for military spending. There he met his wife Grete Gjelstrup, Danish secretary to the European director of the bank. They married in October 1948 and later settled in Berkshire where they had three children, one of them a son with Down’s syndrome who died at seven.
Returning to Britain, Winton made forays into business, once as a partner in an ice-lolly factory, before retiring in 1967. He devoted much of his time to voluntary work, serving as chairman of the Maidenhead branch of Mencap and on its national committee, and organising fund-raising for Winton House, an Abbeyfield Society home for the elderly in Windsor.
In 1983, before his wartime heroism came to light, he was appointed MBE for services to the community.
During the late 1980s Grete Winton decided to bring to wider attention the scrapbook he had kept of the Kindertransports, containing some of the postcards he had sent out with pictures of children, letters he received from officials saying they could not take any more refugees, and, at the back, a record of all the children he saved.
Eventually the Wintons turned to Dr Elisabeth “Betty” Maxwell, an indefatigable (non-Jewish) supporter of Jewish organisations. She showed the scrapbook to her husband Bob, and within weeks the story appeared in The Sunday Mirror. After this, Winton began to meet the children he had saved for the first time since the war. But he found the attendant publicity acutely embarrassing and was reluctant to confront his own heroism.
On the day the newspaper published the story, Winton appeared on the BBC television That’s Life! show to discuss it. A week later he appeared on the programme again; this time the presenter Esther Rantzen invited the studio audience to stand up if they owed their life to Nicholas Winton, and the entire audience rose to its feet. “It was all absolutely awful,” Winton complained. He continued to insist he had never done anything special: “I just saw what was going on and did what I could to help.”
The publicity led to Winton’s being showered with honours. In Czechoslovakia he was awarded the Freedom of the City of Prague in 1991, and in October 1998 Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic, awarded him the Order of TG Marsaryk in a ceremony in Hradcany Castle.
In 2001, at President Havel’s invitation, Winton returned to Prague for the premiere of The Power of Good, a Czech-produced documentary about his story. In October 2014 he received the Order of the White Lion from President Milos Zeman in a ceremony at Prague Castle.
In Britain Winton received, in 1999, the freedom of the city of Windsor, an honour he shared only with members of the Royal family; and he was knighted in 2003.
When a biography, Nicholas Winton and the Rescued Generation by Vera Gissing and Muriel Emanuel, was published in 2001, he said: “It was only nine months out of my 92 years and yet this book makes it seem it was my whole life.” In 2014 his daughter Barbara Winton published an account, If it’s Not Impossible… The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton.
Nicholas Winton is survived by a son and a daughter. Grete Winton died in 1999.
Sir Nicholas Winton, born May 19 1909, died July 1 2015