I’m drawn to stories about the human experience, surprising acts of kindness and the overcoming of insurmountable odds. And so, with April being Holocaust Survivor month, my aim was to visit the character of someone who helped to rescue the most vulnerable in these horrific circumstances — the children.
For several days, I’ve lingered over the keyboard wondering who to write about. After all, how does one choose to tell one extraordinary story above the others? Is any one sacrifice or risked life greater or lesser than the others? Of course not.
Last weekend I watched a documentary that made the decision for me — Nicky’s Family, the story of Nicholas Winton and the 669 Jewish children whose lives he saved.
Nicholas Winton was a 29 year old stock broker, building a career in Britain, when a friend working with Jewish refugees in Prague extended a plea for help. Winton responded immediately.
Winton recognized the German threat to Jews throughout Europe. He’d already left a position in a German bank to return to the safety of England. He was the child of Jewish parents, born Nicholas Wertheimer. They changed their surname to Winton and baptized him in the Anglican Church to ease their integration. I wonder what misgivings he felt placing himself so close to the advancing danger.
Upon arriving in Prague, he visited some refugee camps, filled to capacity with Jewish families and people who’d spoken against the Germans. After witnessing their desperate living conditions, he was particularly struck by the vulnerability of the children. “So the idea came to me, that these children had to be saved,” Winton would say years later.
Without waiting for proper authorization, Winton began to organize for the safe transport of Jewish children from Czechoslovakia and for their subsequent care in the homes of British foster families. He masterminded the operation from scratch. His parents were already helping Jewish families to escape the Germans, he told an interviewer years later, so he had insight into how to begin. He made applications for transport available to any interested families — not only those living in refugee camps. Winton was soon inundated with requests from parents who’d learned of his mission.
Next, he returned to London to set the stage for rescue. There were administrative pieces to set in place before the children could be transported. He maintained a record of each child with meticulous precision, in the hopes that they would return to their families after the war ended. Careful record keeping was also necessary to satisfy government requirements for the children’s entry into the country. Winton worked as a stockbroker during the day, and in the evenings, he fundraised the $50 per child guarantee required by British law. With the help of small team of voluneers, he prepared packages that included photos and personal information about each child. These packages were presented to the British foster families who expressed interest in taking in child refugees.
The first group of children to leave Czechoslovakia travelled by airplane. Seven more groups travelled across Europe by train, then across the English Channel by ship. Families waited to greet them at a train station in Britain. The eighth transport, containing 250 children, was unable to leave Germany because the war had officially begun. They are assumed dead.
Nicholas Winton, the model of humility, told no one about his WW2 exploit and what he’d done for the Jewish children. Had his wife, Grete, not discovered trunk in their attic, packed with scrapbooks of carefully documented details about the children, not even she would know the story. “It was a very small part of his life and he had forgotten about it until we found the papers,” she told one interviewer.
She secretly shared her discovery with different journalists, but no one was interested in telling the story. Then she met the host of the BBC’s “That’s Life“, and everything changed. The world heard his story in 1988. The original children, then over 50 years of age, finally learned who to thank for their rescue. Previous to being contacted by the program staff, they’d little idea of how the process of their rescue occurred. They’d been so young at the time. “Is there anyone else who owes their life to Nicholas Winton,” the host asked the audience, “if so, could you stand up please.” The entire audience rose to their feet.
Aside from the obvious impressive humanitarian feat, I am most intrigued by the composition of his character. Throughout the viewing of Nicky’s Family, I noted that he is fun loving and adventurous yet introspective and grounded in philanthropy. His career path involved money and profit but the currency of human life is most important to him. His mind worked with detail and organizational structure yet he trusted his instinct and risked dating a beautiful spy who, contrary to his friends’ warnings, helped his cause. I’m also adding humility to the list of reasons that Nicholas Winton inspires my pen. Perhaps it is his goodness that fuels his longevity. He’s celebrated his 104th birthday.
“The thing is to be prepared always to help other people, if there’s an opportunity to do so.” ~ Sir Nicholas Winton