In observation of the recent International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we bring to you an unsung Holocaust hero that history books often leave out.
This is a story of a British banker who took a two-week holiday to Prague in 1938 in what was then Czechoslovakia and left with over 669 Jewish children, saving them from inevitable death at the hands of the Nazis.
For 50 years, he never spoke of his heroism, and the children never knew who saved them.
Nicky Winton, the British Banker
Sir Nicholas George Winton, who people affectionately called “Nicky,” was a stockbroker from the United Kingdom. He was a humble man who, despite his financial success, always had the heart to give to people that had been struck by difficulties in life.
Born to Jewish parents, he had always remembered where he came from as his parents were German Jews who had moved to London. The Wintons, originally the Wertheims, had changed their last name to fit in with British society in 1908.
Despite being a banker and a stockbroker, he was known as an ardent socialist who did not support the appeasement strategies of former UK Prime Ministers Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin, and Neville Chamberlain towards then Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Because of this, he became close to prominent Labor Party members Aneurin Bevan, Jennie Lee, Tom Driberg, and another socialist friend Martin Blake. They would later be instrumental to the success of his rescue mission.
Saving the Jews from the Holocaust
Later, he would hear about Jewish persecution in Czechoslovakia, which deeply concerned him. Refugee camps were reportedly ill-supplied, with people battling harsh winters and hunger.
In December 1938, he planned to go skiing in Switzerland when his friend, Martin Blake, asked him to visit Czechoslovakia, where the instructional master had been working as part of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia. This committee was created in response to the German Prewar Expansion, where Hitler had expanded Germany by annexing Austria and Czechoslovakia. This would, later on, be the cause of the start of World War II.
He used his visit to the country in the most heroic way possible – he tried to save the Jewish children by forging documents from the British Committee for Refugees, obtaining stationery from the committee, and labeling the papers as the “Children’s Section” of the committee. Later, the committee was forced to integrate the made-up section as Winton’s rescue plan was catching steam.
With Martin Blake, Trevor Chadwick, and Beatrice Wellington, they set up the Kindertransport rescue operation from the dining room table in a hotel situated in Prague. They then opened the applications from Jewish parents in an attempt to get their children out before the war would eventually reach their country.
Soon, he returned to London to fix the legalities and logistics of the mission. He wrote to both the British and American governments to help him with his rescue mission by taking in some of the Jewish children. Sweden also agreed and took several children as refugees.
Winton had written former US President Franklin Roosevelt to help and take in more Jewish refugees. The US Embassy in London stated that they could not help in their current situation. The British government supported the rescue, only if he were to find families that were willing to take the Jewish people in and find funding (50 pounds) each for the children so that they could be returned to their country after the war.
While doing all these tasks, he continued working at the stock exchange to fund the rescue mission while his mother helped him find homes for the children. On the Prague side, Chadwick and his team were working hard to evade detection by the Nazis and arranged the transportation from Prague to Germany, the Netherlands, and into the United Kingdom.
Dealing with secretly transporting Jewish refugees through the heart of Nazi Germany was hard enough. The Dutch government was reportedly difficult as they officially closed their borders to Jewish refugees and even searched for them within their borders and returned them to the Nazis despite knowing what would eventually happen to them. Ultimately, the children were transported out of the country through planes and trains, where over 669 Jewish children were saved.
He went on to serve in the Red Cross early in World War II as a conscientious objector. He would later reject his objector status and enlist in the Royal Air Force (RAF), where he was an aircraftman. Later he would be a sergeant and the end of the war would find him an acting pilot officer at the end of the war.
A Holocaust Hero In Silence
For over 50 years, he would not tell about his heroic actions to anybody, not even his wife. In 1988, his wife Grete found his personal scrapbook of all the Jewish children he saved. She then sent this scrapbook to a Holocaust researcher, Elisabeth Maxwell, the wife of Robert Maxwell, a Czech-born British media magnate who owned the Daily Mirror. His story would then be publicized on an episode of the BBC program “That’s Life” in 1988, where the children he saved were members of the audience.
In 1983, he was made a member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his work with the elderly in Britain. 2003, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth, recognizing his efforts from the Kindertransport rescue operation. He also received the Pride of Britain Award for Lifetime Achievement during this time. Aside from these, he was also awarded the British Hero of the Holocaust Award by the British government in 2010. Lastly, he received the highest honor from the Czech Republic, receiving the Order of the White Lion 1st Class by Czech President Miloš Zeman.
We know that Sir Nicholas Winton is not the last Holocaust hero we haven’t heard of. If you know of anyone, share them with us, and let’s give them the thanks and honor they deserve.
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