Sir Nicholas George Winton MBE (born Wertheim; 19 May 1909 – 1 July 2015) was a British humanitarian who organised the rescue of 669 children, most of them Jewish, from Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Second World War in an operation later known as the Czech Kindertransport (German for "children's transport"). Winton found homes for the children and arranged for their safe passage to Britain. The world found out about his work over 50 years later, in 1988. The British press dubbed him the "British Schindler".
In 2003, Winton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for "services to humanity, in saving Jewish children from Nazi Germany occupied Czechoslovakia". On 28 October 2014, he was awarded the highest honour of the Czech Republic, the Order of the White Lion (1st class), by Czech President Miloš Zeman.
Winton in Prague on 10 October 2007
|Born||Nicholas George Wertheim
19 May 1909
Hampstead, London, England
|Died||1 July 2015 (aged 106)
Wexham Park Hospital, Slough, Berkshire, England
|Other names||Nicholas George Wortham|
|Alma mater||Stowe School|
|Spouse(s)||Grete Gjelstrup (m. 1948; d. 1999)|
||Royal Air Force|
|Years of service||1940–1954|
|Battles/wars||Second World War|
Winton was born on 19 May 1909 in Hampstead, London to Rudolph Wertheim (1881–1937), a bank manager, and his wife Barbara (née Wertheimer, 1888–1978), as the middle-born of their three children. His elder sister was Charlotte (1908-2001) and the younger brother, Robert (1914-2009). His parents were German Jews who had moved to London two years earlier. The family name was Wertheim, but they changed it to Winton in an effort at integration. They also converted to Christianity, and Winton was baptised.
In 1923, Winton entered Stowe School, which had just opened. He left without qualifications, attending night school while volunteering at the Midland Bank. He then went to Hamburg, where he worked at Behrens Bank, followed by Wasserman Bank in Berlin. In 1931, he moved to France and worked for the Banque Nationale de Crédit in Paris. He also earned a banking qualification in France. Returning to London, he became a broker at the London Stock Exchange. Though a stockbroker, Winton was also "an ardent socialist who became close to Labour Party luminaries Aneurin Bevan, Jennie Lee and Tom Driberg." Through another socialist friend, Martin Blake, Winton became part of a left-wing circle opposed to appeasement and concerned about the dangers posed by the Nazis.
Shortly before Christmas 1938, Winton was planning to travel to Switzerland for a skiing holiday. He decided instead to visit Prague and help Martin Blake, who was in Prague as an associate of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, then in the process of being occupied by Germany, and had called Winton to ask him to assist in Jewish welfare work. Winton single-handedly established an organization to aid children from Jewish families at risk from the Nazis. He set up his office at a dining room table in his hotel in Wenceslas Square. In November 1938, following Kristallnacht in Nazi-ruled Germany, the House of Commons approved a measure to allow the entry into Britain of refugees younger than 17, provided they had a place to stay and a warranty of £50 was deposited for their eventual return to their own country.
An important obstacle was getting official permission to cross into the Netherlands, as the children were to embark on the ferry at Hook of Holland. After Kristallnacht in November 1938, the Dutch government officially closed its borders to any Jewish refugees. The border guards, marechaussees, searched for them and returned any found to Germany, despite the horrors of Kristallnacht being well known.
Winton succeeded, thanks to the guarantees he had obtained from Britain. After the first train, the process of crossing the Netherlands went smoothly. Winton ultimately found homes in Britain for 669 children, many of whose parents would perish in the Auschwitz concentration camp. His mother worked with him to place the children in homes and later hostels. Throughout the summer of 1939, he placed photographs of the children in Picture Post seeking families to accept them.
He also wrote to US politicians such as Roosevelt, asking them to take more children. He said that two thousand more might have been saved if they had helped, but only Sweden took any besides those sent to Britain. The last group of 250, scheduled to leave Prague on 1 September 1939, were unable to depart. With Hitler's invasion of Poland on the same day, the Second World War had begun. Of the children due to leave on that train, only two survived the war.
Winton acknowledged the vital roles of Doreen Warriner, Trevor Chadwick, Nicholas Stopford, Beatrice Wellington (June 15, 1907 – ?), Josephine Pike, and Bill Barazetti (1914–2000) in Prague who also worked to evacuate children from Europe. Winton was in Prague for only about three weeks before the Nazis occupied the country. He never set foot in Prague Station. As he later wrote, "Chadwick did the more difficult and dangerous work after the Nazis invaded... he deserves all praise".
Of the 669 children saved from the Holocaust through Winton's efforts, more than 370 have never been traced. BBC News suggested in 2015 that they may not know the full story of how they survived the war.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, Winton applied successfully for registration as a conscientious objector and later served with the Red Cross. In 1940, he rescinded his objections and joined the Royal Air Force, Administrative and Special Duties Branch. He was an aircraftman, rising to sergeant by the time he was commissioned on 22 June 1944 as an acting pilot officer on probation.
On 17 August 1944, he was promoted to pilot officer on probation. He was promoted to the rank of war substantive flying officer on 17 February 1945. He relinquished his commission on 19 May 1954, retaining the honorary rank of flight lieutenant.
After the war, Winton worked for the International Refugee Organisation and then the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Paris, where he met Grete Gjelstrup, a Danish secretary and accountant's daughter. They married in her hometown of Vejle on 31 October 1948. The couple settled in Maidenhead, England, where they brought up their three children: Nick (born 1951), Barbara (born 1954) and the youngest Robin (1956-1962), who was born with Down Syndrome.
The family insisted that Robin stay with them rather than be sent to a residential home. Robin's death from meningitis, the day before his sixth birthday, affected Winton greatly and he founded a local support organisation which became Maidenhead MENCAP. Winton stood, unsuccessfully, for the town council in 1954. Winton found work in the finance departments of various companies.
It is often wrongly reported that Winton suppressed his humanitarian exploits for many years; he mentioned them in his election material while unsuccessfully standing for election to the Maidenhead town council in 1954. His rescue achievements went unnoticed for half a century until in 1988 his wife found a detailed scrapbook in their attic, containing lists of the children, including their parents' names and the names and addresses of the families that took them in. She gave the scrapbook to Elisabeth Maxwell, a Holocaust researcher and wife of media magnate Robert Maxwell. Winton himself could not remember the reason why this was done. Letters were sent to each of these known addresses and 80 of "Winton's children" were found in Britain.
The wider world found out about his work in February 1988 during an episode of the BBC television programme That's Life! when he was invited as a member of the audience. At one point, Winton's scrapbook was shown and his achievements were explained. The host of the programme, Esther Rantzen, asked whether anybody in the audience owed their lives to Winton, and if so, to stand – more than two dozen people surrounding Winton rose and applauded.
To celebrate his 100th birthday, Winton flew over the White Waltham Airfield in a microlight piloted by Judy Leden, the daughter of one of the boys he saved. His birthday was also marked by the publication of a profile in The Jewish Chronicle.
Winton died peacefully in his sleep on the morning of 1 July 2015 at Wexham Park Hospital in Slough from cardio-respiratory failure, having been admitted a week earlier following a deterioration in his health. He was 106 years old.
Winton's death came 76 years to the day after 241 of the children he saved left Prague on a train. A special report from the BBC News on several of the children whom Winton rescued during the war had been published earlier that day.
In the 1983 Queen's Birthday Honours, Winton was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his work in establishing the Abbeyfield homes for the elderly in Britain, and in the 2003 New Year Honours, he was knighted in recognition of his work on the Czech Kindertransport. He met the Queen again during her state visit to Bratislava, Slovakia, in October 2008. In 2003, Winton received the Pride of Britain Award for Lifetime Achievement. In 2010, Winton was named a British Hero of the Holocaust by the British Government.
Winton was awarded the Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Fourth Class, by the Czech President Václav Havel in 1998. In 2008, he was honoured by the Czech government in several ways. An elementary school in Kunžak is named after him, and he was awarded the Cross of Merit of the Minister of Defence, Grade I. The Czech government nominated him for the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize.
A statue of Winton stands on Platform 1 of the Praha hlavní nádraží railway station. Created by Flor Kent, it was unveiled on 1 September 2009 as part of a larger commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the last Kindertransport train (see also Winton train, below).
There are also three memorials at Liverpool Street Station in London, where the Kindertransport children arrived. In September 2010, another statue of Winton was unveiled, this time at Maidenhead railway station by Home Secretary Theresa May, MP for Maidenhead. Created by Lydia Karpinska, it depicts Winton sitting on a bench and reading a book.
Winton was baptised as a Christian by his parents, but his Jewish ancestry disqualified him from being declared a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Israel. As an adult, he was not active in any particular religion. In a 2015 interview, Winton told Stephen Sackur he had become disillusioned with religion during the war as he could not reconcile religious movements "praying for victory on both sides of the same war". Winton went on to describe his personal beliefs: "I believe in ethics, and if everybody believed in ethics we'd have no problems at all. That's the only way out; forget the religious side."
Winton received the Wallenberg Medal on 27 June 2013 in London. The following year, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation established a literary competition named after Winton. The contest is for essays by high school students about Winton's legacy.
Winton was awarded the Freedom of the City of London on 23 February 2015.
On 1 September 2009, a special "Winton Train" composed of one or two steam locomotives (out of a set of six) and carriages used in the 1930s set off from the Prague Main railway station for London via the original Kindertransport route. On board were several surviving "Winton children" and their descendants, who were welcomed by Winton in London.
The occasion marked the 70th anniversary of the intended last Kindertransport arranged by Winton, due to set off on 1 September 1939 but prevented by the outbreak of the Second World War that very day. At the train's departure, a memorial statue for Winton, designed by Flor Kent, was unveiled at the railway station.
On 19 May 2014, Winton's 105th birthday, it was announced he was to receive the Czech Republic's highest honour, for giving Czech children "the greatest possible gift: the chance to live and to be free". On 28 October 2014, Winton was awarded the Order of the White Lion (Class I) by Czech President Miloš Zeman, the Czech Defence Ministry having sent a special aircraft to bring him to Prague. The award was made alongside one to Sir Winston Churchill, which was accepted by his grandson Nicholas Soames. Zeman said he regretted the highest Czech award having been awarded to the two personalities so belatedly, but added "better late than never". Winton was also able to meet some of the people he rescued 75 years earlier, themselves then in their 80s. He said, "I want to thank you all for this enormous expression of thanks for something which happened to me nearly 100 years ago—and a 100 years is a heck of a long time. I am delighted that so many of the children are still about and are here to thank me."
Winton's work is the subject of three films by Slovak filmmaker Matej Mináč: the drama All My Loved Ones (1999), in which Winton was played by Rupert Graves, the documentary The Power of Good: Nicholas Winton (Síla lidskosti—Nicholas Winton, 2002), which won an Emmy Award, and the documentary drama Nicky's Family (Nickyho rodina, 2011). A play about Winton, Numbers from Prague, was performed in Cambridge in January 2011. Winton was featured in the 2000 Warner Brothers documentary written and directed by Mark Jonathan Harris and produced by Deborah Oppenheimer, Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, which received the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and the film's accompanying book of the same name.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, on 28 October 2014, Winton said he thought he had "made a difference to a lot of people" and went on to say, "I don't think we've learned anything… the world today is in a more dangerous situation than it has ever been."
On 22 April 2016, a remembrance quarter peal was rung and a new method named Sir Nicholas Winton Delight by bellringers of the Whiting Society of Ringers.
On 20 May 2016, Glen Art presented a memorial concert celebrating Winton's life with Jason Isaacs, Rupert Graves and Alexander Baillie, at St John's, Smith Square. All funds donated were given to charities supporting Syrian refugee children.
On 14 July 2017, a memorial garden for Winton was opened in Maidenhead Oaken Grove park by PM Theresa May.
Many German refugee boys and some Winton children were given refuge in Christadelphian homes and hostels, and substantial documentation exists to show how closely Overton worked with Winton and, later, with Winton's mother.
Quick Description: Bronzova socha Sira Nicholase Wintona a dvou deti / Bronze statues of Sir Nicholas Winton and two children.
|Awards and achievements|