Nicholas Winton went to Prague in 1938 and found a mission in life – to save Jewish children. But it wouldn't be easy.
There were formal conditions set by the British House of Commons for extricating at-risk Jewish children (but not their parents) at the time. However, the process was not fully supported back home and riddled with bureaucratic loopholes and barriers which, in retrospect, seem designed to discourage Jewish families from taking advantage of the program.
Chief among these hurdles, families were required a £50 deposit to pay for the child’s transport. This might not sound like much, but it was a significant sum at the time, especially for many Jewish families suffering under intense persecution and prejudice, unable to even provide for basic necessities let along come up with that kind of money. Processing a child also involved significant leg work, including finding a family that was willing to take a child and a host of visa and regulatory requirements (imagine how difficult this would be in an era where the post was still the main form of long-distance communication). For families with nothing to their name, completely desperate, and surrounded by enemies, asking them to fulfill these requirements was like telling a drowning man you would throw them a life preserver as long as they could solve a Rubik’s cube first.
Winton found his niches in smoothing out the process considerably. Meeting parents in his hotel room in Wenceslas Square, Winton worked with them to navigate the bureaucracy, pay the fee (sometimes out of his own pocket) or skirt it through various twists of bureaucratic trickery, set them on the path to freedom. When news spread of his work, his hotel became so flooded with parents they would line up in the lobby and out to the sidewalk and around the building. Winton had to find and open an office to keep things moving.
You need to remember, Winton was just a talented, but otherwise normal man. He had no formal connection to the government, no large reserve of a fortune to draw from and fund all these expenses. Just an intense desire to do good. Eventually, he needed to return to Britain, both to maneuver and advocate for his charges more effectively by speaking with politicians and policy makers face-to-face, and (very plainly) to make a living. His entire mission of mercy to Prague was coming out of pocket and it was beginning to take its toll. But still Winton persisted, for months he balanced working as a stockbroker by day, and as an activist for the Jewish people at night (and his lunch hour, early morning, or any spare minute he could find in his day).
He tirelessly worked to secure funds for desperate families who could not pay the transportation fee. More than that, he found British families willing to open their hearts and homes to young Jewish refugees. He printed photographs of needy children and paid to print them in the post. He beat down the door of every Church and Synagogue he could find and networked with them to find willing members of the congregation to take in a stranger’s child (a big ask, even under the circumstances).
He even committed a little crime. With frustration, he would later relate "Officials at the Home Office worked very slowly with the entry visas. We went to them urgently asking for permits, only to be told languidly, 'Why rush, old boy? Nothing will happen in Europe.' This was a few months before the war broke out. So, we forged the Home Office entry permits."
Reckless? Maybe, but he was proven right. Thanks to his hard work and selective bending of the rules, Winton was able to shepherd 669 Jewish children out of the jaws of the Nazi death machine just before war broke out and the Nazis "final solution” began in earnest. Many others were not so lucky.
After the war, Winton never spoke of his deeds. He married his wife Grete in ’48, had three children with her, and none of them knew anything about his humanitarian achievements. It wasn’t until 1988 when Grete stumbled on an old trunk with a scrapbook filled with dossiers and photos of Jewish children that she learned of it. She took the scrapbook to a holocaust historian and public knowledge of his deeds grew from there.
This culminated in an episode of the BBC program "That’s Life” Winton and his wife attended. One that was specially arranged without his knowledge. Winton came as an audience member, but the show had a surprise for him. Watch the touching scene for yourself.
After that incredible display, Winton became known far and wide as a hero. His scrapbook is featured in Yad Vashem, his story has been told in innumerable articles, and he was knighted Sir Nicholas Winton by the queen in 2002. He lived a powerful and affirming life to the aspirational age of 105.
Winton was a hero, there is no other way to describe him. He saw an injustice of unimaginable proportions being carried out and rather than turn his head like so many tragically did, or wait for someone else to do something, he followed his conscious and took action.
The only question left of his story is why he didn’t share his deeds with his family, why he sought none of the richly deserved glory he was eventually given. There are several possible reasons. Winton was by all accounts a modest and humble man, who has frequently said his partners and friends in Prague deserve as much credit as he does. He could have also been honouring the millions of fallen of the Holocaust, keeping remembrance focused on those who were lost rather than himself.
There is one sadder possibility though. While Winton was able to save 669 human lives, he always wanted to save more. He attempted to save more. And he would have saved more if the Home Office had just cooperated a little bit more.
On September 1, 1939, Winton had 250 more children loaded onto a train and awaiting their journey to safety. It was the largest mass transport he had organized. That day, Hitler’s Nazi army invaded Poland, instantly closing all borders under German control. Those 250 children, already on a train, never made it out of German territory. Of them, only 2 would survive the horrors of the concentration camps.
Winton had everything in the world to be proud of. The tragic loss of that last train of children was not his fault and does nothing to diminish his bravery and moral clarity. But one can’t help but wonder how that loss haunted him, how the thought of those children, expecting to make the trip to meet their new families, instead hauled off the train by Nazi thugs, kept him up at nights.
Sir Nicholas Winton is a hero of the highest order and a reminder that the right time to do the right thing is never next week, never tomorrow, never in a few hours, but NOW.