Sunday, 27 April 2014

Sir Nicholas Winton - World War Two Humanitarian Revealed 50 years later

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Sir Nicholas Winton (Take in Prague in 2007)

While this story first came to being in 1988 and again in 2002 - when it was revealed that now Sir Nicholas Winton was revealed as a humble stock broker from London who helped save hundreds of Jewish children out of then Czechoslovakia prior to the our break of World War Two - it aired on 60 Minutes on Sunday April 27th 2014, and it is more than worth sharing.

Born as Nicholas Wertheim on May 19th 1909 in Hampstead, London to Germany Jewish parents who arrived in London in 1907. The family changed its name to Winton as an effort to integrate into British society. Nicholas not the greatest student in his youth, attending Stowe School, he left before graduating. He got himself a job at the Midland Bank, and began taking nigh courses working towards his qualifications. After a few years Nicholas moved to Hamburg, Germany and began working for Behrens Bank and later Wasserman Bank in Berlin. In 1931, he uprooted again to France, and worked for the Banque Nationale de Credit n Paris, and finished his banking qualifications. He later decided to return to London, where he found work as a stockbroker at the London Stock Exchange.

 With Hitler's rise to power in the German Riech in the mid to late 1930s in Germany, Nicholas began monitoring the news about border closings and the blatant anti-Semitic regime that was taking shape. in early December 1938 as he was about to take a ski trip to Switzerland, he changes his travel plans at the last minute, and travelled instead to Prague and met up with close friend involved in refugee work. That friend was Martin Blake who was attempting to help Jewish refugees who had fled Czechoslovak cities as the German's marched across the boarder. The state of affairs in the refugee camps was deplorable, little food, shelter and heat. This was especially true for the young children.

After seeing the refugee camps, Winton set up an organization in his hotel room in Prague to help families wishing to get their children out of the country. On returning to London, he kept the organization running remotely, working the stock exchange during the day, and the organization at night. The trouble was, politics kept getting in his way. Winton spent time with member of Parliament to get permission to bring Jewish refugees into the country - but the system was too slow. Following the events of Kristallnacht in November 1938, the British House of Commons approved measures to allow refugees under the age of 17 to enter the country - as long as they had somewhere to stay and held enough money to deposit for their return after the war.

Winton still needed to get the children from Prague to London...a long and dangerous voyage that needed to cross Nazi Germany. The shortest distance went From Prague, though Germany, and into the Netherlands, but following the events of Kristallnacht, the Netherlands closed its borders to Jewish refugees. This stalled Winton's plan to use the ferry at Hook of Holland. With the help of London, Winton was able to convince the Dutch government to allow him to cross the borders with refugees. Winton found homes for 669 children, but the House of Commons was extremely slow at issuing the required travel documents - so Winton and his organization used his wealth and connections to basically blackmail quicker speeds. When that did not work - they forged the required documentation. In August 1939, the first train left Prague headed for London with all 669 children aboard. Winton set out getting another 250 children out - the Train was ready to leave on September 1st 1939 - the day World War Two Broke out - all borders were closed to non - military transportation. The 250 children and the parents of almost all the 669 from the original train perished at Auschwitz or the other concentration camps.

Winton did not sit out the war - he joined the Red Cross, served as a medical assistant. By 1940 - he opted to join the RAF on the Administrative and Special Duties Branch. By 1945, he was a War Substantive Flying Officer - training pilots. He retired from the RAF in 1954 with an honorary ran of Flight Lieutenant.

Thus ended his World War Two exploits - he remained quiet on what he accomplished in 1938/39 in Prague on vacation - that was until his late wife - Grete found a scrapbook in 1988 with a list of all the children and their parents names and addresses in them. By sending letters to the addresses - 80 of the children were located in Britain. In 1988 the BBC aired a special called "That's Life!" which Winton was surprised by more than two dozen of those he helped save.

Of those he saved - the most notable are:

  • Alfred Dubs (Baron Dubs) 
  • Karel Reisz
  • Joe Schlesinger 
  • Renata Laxova
  • Heini Halberstam 
In 1983 - on the Queen Elizabeth II's birthday honor's - Winton was appointed a member of the Order of the British Empire  for his work in establishing the Abbeyfield elderly homes in Britain. Then in 2002 - at the New Years Honor's he was knighted in recognition of his work on the Czech Kindertransport. He later met with Queen Elizabeth in Bratislav Slovakia in October of 2008 on her state visit. in 2003, he received the Pride of Britain Award for Lifetime achievement. 

Today Winton is 104 years old, still living in London on his own - his wife Grete regretfully passed away in 1999. He appeared and spoke of what he accomplished on 60 Minutes on April 27th 2014. 

The full story is available in The Rescue of the Prague Refugees 1938-39 by William Chadwick (2010)

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A Memorial of Sir Nicholas Winton at the Prague Main Railway Station was installed in 2009.
Remembering History - Remembering the exploits of Sir Nicholas Winton