Heroes of the holocaust: Sir Nicholas Winton Part 1

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It’s pretty natural for people to celebrate their accomplishments, to take pride in a job well done and seek the approval of others. Get promoted at work? Call your spouse and let them know the good news! Win a competition or place in a sporting event? Place the trophy on a display shelf. Cook a really nice dinner? Snap a pic and share it. These are all fine accomplishments and (within reason) it isn’t a bad thing to be proud of what you can do. But there is something to be said for modesty.

Nicholas Winton saved 669 children from death in the concentration camps and didn’t breathe a word about it for 50 years.

If there was ever an occasion to crow, his efforts would certainly qualify. But Winton was a man who understood that a good deed was its own reward.

How it began

In 1938, Nicholas Winton was an interesting fellow. A 29-year-old stockbroker and sportsman, Winton would have made for a good conversation partner. He was formally educated and a gifted student, but dropped out of the prestigious Stowe School to concentrate on practical experience in the business world. He was a stockbroker, but one who was openly critical of the financial sector and its oversized role in policy making. He was political, recognizing early on the threat that Hitler’s brand of rabid propaganda was fomenting in Europe. Although perhaps his greatest claim to fame at the time was his extraordinary fencing skills. It is speculated that if not for the war, he would have represented Britain in the Olympics. All this and he was well regarded by his peers and seen as a dependable confidant.

Perhaps it was this quality most of all that led to the strange and interesting journey Winton would soon embark. He was just packing for a skiing trip to Switzerland when he received the call that would change his life (and the lives of many others).

"I have a most interesting assignment and I need your help. Don't bother bringing your skis."

This was his friend Martin Blake, asking him to switch his plans from enjoying the slopes to meet him in Prague. Now most of us, when asked to drop a vacation to go help a friend with a vague and unspecified project would tell them no sale. But Winton saw the situation differently, he knew Martin wouldn’t make a request like that if it wasn’t important. So, he put the skis away, refunded his ticket, and got a new one to Prague.

You have to understand what this meant at the time. This was after Kristallnacht, the mood in Europe was already dark and Prague was becoming less safe by the day. The ghettoization of the Jews was well and underway at this point, but many in Britain and other parts of Europe had yet to absorb the sheer scope of the brutality brewing in Germany. 

Winton thought he understood the plight of the Jewish people in Germany already. He was a politically aware and thoughtful person and of Jewish heritage himself, so he was already sympathetic to oppressed Jews of Europe. But knowing about something and seeing it are very different things. Coming to Prague, it was clear to him that the full extent of Jewish persecution was far more insidious and vile than what was understood in Britain, a kind of hate that could only possibly end in mass graves.

Blake was in Prague working with the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia. This was the project he wanted Winton’s help with. The official services were choked with bureaucracy and overloaded with applications. He wanted a reliable person he could trust to help expedite things. Basically, someone to help with the paper work.

Winton, recognizing the severity of the situation, did one better. Instead of helping to merely review forms and make sure the post was delivered accurately, he came up with a grander vision. He founded a new organization straight from the dinner table of the hotel he was staying at, one with a single mission - Getting Jewish children as far from the clutches of the Nazis as possible.

He had no idea how successful he would be or how his legacy would reverberate for generations to come. Find out more about his incredible story in Part 2 next week.

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