Ethics Hero Emeritus: Sir Nicholas Winton (1909 – 2015)

winton and child

Another hero of the Holocaust has died. Nicholas Winton organized and substantially financed the last-minute escape of 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II, but never sought the fame and public accolades that Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg received. He got the accolades anyway, especially in his native Great Britain and Czechoslovakia, once his heroics were publicized long after they occurred.

I had never heard of him or his exploits until the news reports of his death.

In December of 1938, Winton, a London stockbroker, canceled a Swiss skiing vacation and flew to Prague to assist a friend, Martin Blake, who was aiding refugees in the Sudetenland, the western region of Czechoslovakia that had just been annexed by Germany. He then learned first-hand of the shabby and over-crowded Jewish refugee camps, and the dire peril the Jews faced. When war broke out, as seemed inevitable, the Jews living in the camps were almost certainly doomed, and Western restrictions against Jewish immigration made escape extremely difficult.

Great Britain, however, had launched a program called Kindertransport in 1938, which admitted  Jewish children up to age 17 into the country if British families could be found to sponsor them. The Refugee Children’s Movement in Britain rescued 10,000 Jewish children before the war began, but the Jewish children in Czechoslovakia had no such program to save their lives.  Nicholas Winton decided to operate his own at great personal risk, entering the shadow world of secret meetings, double agents, subterfuge, bribes, forgery, and documentation that was potentially deadly evidence against him. Though Winton was under suspicion in Prague and trailed by Nazi agents, he used the dining room table in his  Prague hotel suite to meet with parents desperate to get their children to safety.

Eventually Winton opened a storefront office, using copious bribes to keep Nazi authorities at bay. More than 900 children registered with him to be brought to the UK. In early 1939, Winton left associates in charge of his organization’s work in Prague and returned to London to commence the task of identifying foster homes for the Jewish children. Hundreds of British families volunteered, but finding enough money from donors to cover transportation and other costs was difficult, so Winton used his own wealth to cover the gap. Because the British Home Office was infuriating slow providing entry visas and he knew the children were running out of time, he forged the visas himself, an excellent example of how the ends sometimes do justify the means, even when the means are illegal.

In Prague, meanwhile, Winton’s allies had recruited the aid of local Gestapo head Karl Bömelburg, who was more interested in lining his own pockets than in killing Jews. He helped the Winton organization to have forged transit papers and bribes passed along to Nazis and Czech railway officials. On March 14, 1939, mere hours before Hitler began absorbing the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia into Germany, the first refugee children left Prague on one of the nine trains Winton had obtained. The other trains eventually followed, getting the children out of the Third Reich to the North Sea, where they travelled by ship to Harwich, Essex, and by other trains to London. There Winton and the host families greeted the terrified and confused children, who each wore a name tag so their foster families could identify them.

In all, 669 children made it through to England. Tragically the last train, containing 250 more, was stopped at the border on the day Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland. None of those children were ever seen or heard from again, presumably dying with their parents in concentration camps.

Many of the 669 remained in Great Britain after the war, but many others moved to Czechoslovakia, Israel, Australia, the United States or elsewhere. Those who are still alive call themselves “Winton’s Children,” and it is an impressive group. The New York Times notes that among them are

“…the film director Karel Reisz, who made “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1981), “Isadora” (1968) and “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” (1960); Lord Alfred Dubs, who became a member of Parliament; Joe Schlesinger, a Canadian broadcast correspondent; Hugo Marom, a founder of the Israeli Air Force; Vera Gissing, the author of “Pearls of Childhood” (2007) and other books; and Renata Laxová, a geneticist who discovered the Neu-Laxová Syndrome, a congenital abnormality.”

For nearly 50 years, Winton told no one of his role in the children’s rescue, not even his wife, whom he married in 1948. One day in 1988 she discovered, hidden away, his scrapbook containing pictures, notes, data and documentation regarding the whole adventure. Winton told her to throw it out, but she sent the scrapbook to a Holocaust historian instead. That led to a newspaper feature, and a BBC television program. Nicholas Winton lived the rest of his life as a local celebrity, though always a reticent and humble one. Winton was knighted in 2003; he was honored with the Czech Republic’s highest award, was granted honorary citizenship in Prague, was the object of an American congressional resolution, received letters of appreciation from President George W. Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, and former President Ezer Weizman of Israel, and was nominated by the Czech Republic for the Nobel Peace Prize. There are statues of Nicholas Winton in Prague and London; schools and streets bear his name.

Yet he insisted that his achievements were minimal compared with those of Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg. He also insisted that Beatrice Wellington, Doreen Warriner, Trevor Chadwick and others who assisted his efforts in Prague deserved as much credit as he did, and more. “Chadwick did the more difficult and dangerous work after the Nazis invaded … he deserves all praise,” he wrote.

Winton never really explained his motivations either, except to tell The New York Times in 2001:

“One saw the problem there, that a lot of these children were in danger, and you had to get them to what was called a safe haven, and there was no organization to do that. Why did I do it? Why do people do different things? Some people revel in taking risks, and some go through life taking no risks at all.”

Since 1999 there have been three films about Winton’s rescues, all by the Slovak director Matej Minác: the fictionalized “All My Loved Ones” (1999); a documentary, “The Power of Good: Nicholas Winton” (2002); and “Nicky’s Family” (2011). There is also a book, “Nicholas Winton’s Lottery of Life,” published in 2007.

Sir Nicholas Winton lived to be 106.


Facts and Graphic: New YorkTimes

14 thoughts on “Ethics Hero Emeritus: Sir Nicholas Winton (1909 – 2015)

  1. “Because the British Home Office was infuriating slow providing entry visas and he knew the children were running out of time, he forged the visas himself, an excellent example of how the ends sometimes do justify the means, even when the means are illegal.”

    Couldn’t it (or shouldn’t it) be said, then, that certain actions of American activists today – doing similar deeds to enable immigrant children to escape horrible poverties and other oppressions – are heroic? What about anti-abortion activists who slyly induce pregnant females to change their minds and endure their pregnancies to term?

  2. Winton sounds like a great guy who took on risks most people would be hesitant to get involved with. Although the Wannsee Conference was not held until Jan. of 1942, the eventual fate of the Jews in Germany and occupied countries was clear to those people that wanted to think about it. That a top nazi would be bribe able doesn’t surprise me as some of them wanted to solve the “Jewish Problem” by deporting them. Hopefully, the BBC will make a movie about Sir Winton.

  3. As a student of (and avid reader about) the Holocaust and World War II, I am astonished and embarrassed that until today I had never heard of Nicholas Winton. “History” is so incomplete — which is why I applauded (and still do) Spielberg for his “Shoah” project — which filmed oral histories of Holocaust survivors.

    Back to Winton, though: One can only hope that — today — there are still individuals who “do the right thing” without thought of fame or fortune. It doesn’t have to be high-risk actions in extraordinary times: let Winton be our guide to the way we run our everyday lives.

    • I’m sure there are plenty of heroes hiding in plain sight. One never knows until the conditions demand it and one often never expects who it is.

      Of course, given this generation, the prospect of giving up a ski trip is mighty weighty…

  4. I knew of Sir Winton’s story. What I didn’t know was how many of those 669 children he saved went on to prominence. I saw that video of him being honored in a ceremony, totally unaware that he was surrounded by the grown up children whose lives he had saved. When they made themselves known to him, it was a truly heartwarming reunion. God rest this man. A true hero.

  5. As a side-note, if you track down the BBC documentary on him, there is an excellent bit of theater at one point which I’m sure you’ll appreciate (even if it meant horribly embarrassing a hero).

    Actually, it’s online in various places. For instance, here:

    Although I think that the cut-in (added later to the online video) detracts from the impact. Even with it, however, it’s a powerful piece, and quite literally brought tears to my eyes. If there’s one moment — one clip — which sums up Nicholas Winton’s life, I do suspect that’s it.

    He will be missed.

  6. Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport features Winton and others. Won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar for 2001. Trailer follows, continuing under same link is trailer for Nicky’s Children (available in its entirety on YouTube), and for four or five more Holocaust-related films:

  7. Ten years or so ago when in Sydney, Australia, I met an elderly, retired jazz sax player who was, unfortunately, quite a mess. I suspect sometimes he took his medication and other times he didn’t. We both played on a piano in a community center. He’d grown up in war time England. He told me he remembered “a little Jewish girl” who’d come to live with him and his parents in their house. He was still haunted by how sad she was and still wondered what had happened to her.

    Nice knowing something more about her.

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