‘Hero’ who saved Jewish children dies at 106
Sir Nicholas Winton has died; he organised the rescue of 669 children from Czechoslovakia who would otherwise have perished in the Holocaust. What does his story say about humankind?
In 1988, Grete Winton found a scrapbook belonging to her husband in her attic. Intrigued, she looked through it to find letters, permits, photographs and other memorabilia from a committee for refugees from Czechoslovakia.
The documents revealed that her husband Nicholas had arranged the transport of 669 children, most of whom were Jews, out of Czechoslovakia in 1939. His foresight and actions had saved them from almost-certain death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz over the coming years. And he had been so modest that he had not even told Grete or their children of his efforts in the 49 years since.
On Wednesday, Sir Nicholas Winton’s long and extraordinary life (which included a knighthood for ‘services to humanity’ in 2003) ended after 106 years. The UK’s chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, called him ‘one of the greatest people I have ever met’.
Sir Nicholas had been working as a stockbroker in Britain in 1938 when he took a trip to Prague to help a friend involved in Jewish refugee work. Foreseeing a dreadful fate for Czechoslovakia’s Jews, he decided to use his spare time to set up an operation known as the ‘Kindertransport’ to take Jewish children to safer shores.
His team raised funds and made arrangements to bring eight trains to Britain in the first eight months of 1939 and settle the children with families. As the children have grown up and had families, several thousand people now living owe their existence to him. Those he saved include Labour politician Lord Dubs and the late film director Karel Reisz.
But Sir Nicholas wished to the end that he had achieved more. The outbreak of the Second World War prevented a scheduled ninth train from leaving; all 250 children due to be on board are believed to have been among the 1.1 million Czech Jews murdered at Auschwitz. And Sir Nicholas’s appeals to global politicians to accept more refugees largely fell on deaf ears.
An example to us all
Home Secretary Theresa May, who was also his MP, called Sir Nicholas Winton ‘an enduring example of the difference that good people can make even in the darkest of times’. His death reminds us that human beings have the capacity for great selflessness. As former Prime Minister Gordon Brown put it, ‘his inspiration will live on’.
But Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel says that ‘the outside world adopted an attitude either of complicity or of indifference’ towards the Nazis’ crimes; Sir Nicholas was one of just a few who had ‘the courage to care’. If everybody had paid a little more attention, considerably more than 669 people might have been saved. And as immigration policies around the world remain driven by self-interest, Sir Nicholas’s legacy is still widely ignored.
- Do all humans have the capacity to do great good?
- Will we always need individuals like Sir Nicholas Winton, or will humanity be able to address emergencies collectively?
- Draw a statue or memorial for Sir Nicholas Winton. Suggest where you think it should be and explain why you have designed it as you have.
- Write a newspaper report from someone at Liverpool Street station watching the arrival of one of the trains of refugees. Include an explanation of the relevant global political context. Item 18 in the scrapbook (a real-life report) will be of particular help.
Some People Say...
“I wasn’t heroic because I was never in danger.”Sir Nicholas Winton
What do you think?
Q & A
- What can we learn from Sir Nicholas?
- As well as his compassion and dedication, one of his great qualities was his foresight: not everyone at the time believed that war would break out or that the Jews in territory occupied by the Nazis faced imminent mass murder, so his sense of urgency was often unmatched by more powerful people.
- Could others follow his example?
- No two situations are fully alike, but his methods might make a difference in some of the humanitarian crises which face us now. The millions displaced in Syria and the migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean are examples of vulnerable refugees who often fear for their lives.
- Did he ever celebrate reaching such an old age?
- He had a 105th birthday party last year at the Czech embassy in London. Many of those he saved were there.
- One of the greatest people
- Sir Nicholas would almost certainly have baulked at such flattery, just as he objected to comparisons with Oskar Schindler, who used the factory he owned to protect Jews.
- Germany annexed the Sudetenland (the part of Czechoslovakia where many people spoke German) in September 1938. This drove Jewish refugees to the capital, Prague, where many worried that the Nazis would take over the whole country. That duly happened in March 1939.
- Settle the children with families
- Legislation in 1938 made it easier for refugees to come to Britain but restrictions remained. Refugees could only come if they had somewhere to go and a £50 bond had been paid to ensure they could return later.
- Outbreak of the Second World War
- The train was scheduled to leave on 1 September 1939, but when Germany invaded Poland that day, they shut border crossings, preventing the train from leaving.
- Appeals to global politicians
- Only Britain and Sweden took refugees, and even there it proved difficult. Sir Nicholas later said he could have saved at least 2,000 more with help from the USA.