In December 1938, stockbroker Nicholas Winton got involved in a war few knew was coming. He later became known for following through on a particular idea, after a phone-call from a friend asking him to drop a planned skiing holiday and come to Prague instead. That idea was to get vulnerable Jewish children out of Czechoslovakia and into Britain.
He knew the situation in Europe. His German Jewish parents, resettled in Hampstead, were still in close contact with their kin, who relayed news on the ground. Kristallnacht had been a month earlier, and Hitler had annexed Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia a month before that. British politicians flew back waving paper, but through his family connections and left-leaning political acquaintances, including ‘father of the NHS’ Aneurin Bevan, the young Nicholas knew more than most that something needed to be done.
“I went out knowing roughly what I would find. I knew they were in danger, living rough, in camps, in temporary shelter. That didn’t surprise me. What surprised me was the number of societies already there helping them.”
Indeed, the Central British Fund for Germany Jewry (which became World Jewish Relief) was busy raising half a million pounds to re-house and subsequently care for 10,000 German and Austrian children, but what of the children of Czechoslovakia? “There is no organisation in Prague to deal with refugee children,” he was told. “But if you want to have a go, have a go.”
He did. From a hotel table in Wenceslas Square, he set about writing, phoning, calculating and planning. Amidst the mayhem, the rulebook got lost. With embezzled stationery from the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, he created a fake affiliate, of which he made himself chairman.
Thousands of Czech parents soon queued outside his new Prague office, where Winton and Trevor Chadwick filled in forms and registered children. The Gestapo became interested. When they sent a stunning honey-trap, Winton reciprocated.
Shame there weren’t more reciprocal governments. Only Britain and Sweden said they’d take the kids – America was too busy. The Home Office, badgered by Winton’s mother, finally laid out its criteria: £50 deposit and a family to take the child. Fifty pounds was a lot of money, but it could be found, as could the families.
Through adverts in newspapers, churches and synagogues, word got out, money came in, and foster parents got in touch. “Somebody would write and say we want a girl of seven. We’d send several photos of girls aged seven and tell them to choose one. It wasn’t the normal way you’d do things, but it worked well. It was quick.”
With families lined up, and forged visas bypassing Home Office sloth, logistics followed. On 14 March 1939, aged 29, Winton saw the first of his transports leave for London. Seven more followed. Once there, the kids were moved to their families. “It wasn’t as difficult or mysterious as people make out. They were already evacuating children from the south of England. We just had to get them on the train.”
Time was of the essence, and he politely rode roughshod over resistance. To rabbis outraged that Jewish children would grow up in Christian homes, he told them: “Mind your own business. This is what needs doing and I’m doing it. If you prefer a dead Jew to a Jew brought up in a Christian home, that’s your problem.”
He rescued 669 children. It would have been thousands, but on 1 September 1939, his ninth train, carrying 250 children, was stopped from leaving Prague, as Britain declared war on Germany. Their fate is unknown, as, for decades, was Winton’s role, locked in a box in his Maidenhead attic, contained in notes and diaries, where it would have stayed had his wife not one day been rummaging around. Enter Esther Rantzen and her team of researchers. That 1988 ‘Hearts of Gold’ episode, when she pulled together many of those he’d saved and sat them around Sir Nick in the audience, is now part of British Jewry’s communal memory.
The same can now be said of the man himself, after he fell asleep one last on 1 July, 76 years to the day since one of his transports landed in London.
Nothing followed death, he’d insisted in life. God fell from favour when, in Germany, Winton had realised that his Christian church was praying for victory on both sides. “Forget religion. If everyone believed in ethics – goodness, kindness, love, decency – we’d have no problems at all. That’s the only way.” He lectured his MP Teresa May on it too. “Well, there’s no point lecturing those with no authority,” he’d say.
They listened, too, not just because he’d lived to 100, or because he was a national hero (although he hated the word), but because he’d seen “what suffering there is when armies march,” and because he knew that “there is nothing that can’t be done if it’s not fundamentally reasonable”.
In death, he leaves those he saved. In life, he’d sought neither praise nor the acquaintance of the kids, who, by then, were “dotted all over the place”. He hadn’t worried, though. Britain had an after-care system, in which his mother – whose vital role is underplayed – was heavily involved. Still, they loved him, for his act of unconditional love, to which they owed everything. Many saw him as a father figure.
“That’s just how the cookie crumbled on me,” he’d say to yet another stumbling, fawning interviewer. “It just happened like that. It’s nice to think that it went alright.”
It certainly did.