Sir Nicholas George Winton, (born Chain Wertheimer; 19 May 1909) is a British humanitarian who organized the rescue of 669 mostly Jewish children from German-occupied Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Second World War, in an operation later known as the Czech Kindertransport. Winton found homes for the children and arranged for their safe passage to Britain. The UK press has dubbed him the “British Schindler”.
Winton was born in Hampstead, London, the son of German Jewish parents who had moved to London in 1907. Their family name was Wertheim, but they subsequently changed it to Winton in an effort at integration. The family eventually converted to Christianity, and Winton was baptised.
In 1923, Winton entered Stowe School, which had just opened. He left without graduating, attending night school while volunteering at the Midland Bank. Some time later, he went to Hamburg, where he began to work at Behrens Bank, and then Wasserman Bank in Berlin. In 1931, he moved to France, where he worked for the Banque Nationale de Crédit in Paris, and earned a banking qualification. On returning to London, he worked as a stockbroker at the London Stock Exchange.
Just before Christmas 1938, Winton was about to travel to Switzerland for a skiing holiday, when he decided instead to travel to Prague to help his friend Martin Blake, who was involved in Jewish refugee work, and had called him asking for his help. There he single-handedly established an organization to aid children from Jewish families at risk from the Nazis. He set up an office at a dining room table in his hotel in Wenceslas Square. In November 1938, shortly after Kristallnacht, the House of Commons had approved a measure that would permit the entry of refugees younger than 17 years old into Britain, if they had a place to stay and a warranty of £50 was deposited for a ticket for their eventual return to their country of origin.
An important obstacle was getting official permission to cross into the Netherlands, as the children were destined to embark on the ferry at the Hook of Holland. After Kristallnacht on 9–10 November 1938, the Dutch government had officially closed its borders to any Jewish refugees, and the border guards (marechaussee) actively searched for them and returned their captives to Germany, despite the horrors of Kristallnacht being well known in the Low Countries, as, for instance, from the Dutch-German border the synagogue in Aachen could be seen burning, only 3 miles away.
Winton nevertheless succeeded, thanks to the guarantees he had obtained from the British. After the first train, things went relatively well crossing the Netherlands. Also active in saving Jewish children – some 10,000, mostly from Vienna and Berlin and mostly also via the Hook – was the Dutchwoman Gertruida Wijsmuller-Meier, so the plight of Jewish children was well known in the Netherlands. It is not known whether Winton and ‘Tante Truus’ (auntie Truus), as she was commonly known, ever met. In 2012 a statue was erected on the quay at the Hook to commemorate all those who saved Jewish children.
Winton found homes for 669 children, many of whose parents perished in Auschwitz. Winton’s mother also worked with him to place the children in homes, and later hostels. Throughout the summer he placed advertisements seeking families to take them in. The last group of 250, which was intended to leave Prague on 1 September 1939 did not reach safety; the Nazis had invaded Poland, marking the start of World War II, and the children later perished in the concentration camps.
With the coming of war, Winton sought registration as a conscientious objector and served with the Red Cross, but in 1940 he rescinded his objection to join the Royal Air Force, Administrative and Special Duties Branch. He was initially an airman, 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.
Winton kept quiet about his humanitarian exploits for many years, until his wife Grete found a detailed scrapbook in their attic in 1988. It contained lists of the children, including their parents’ names, and the names and addresses of the families that took them in. By sending letters to these addresses, 80 of “Winton’s children” were found in Britain. The world found out about his work in 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 explained. The host of the programme, Esther Rantzen, asked whether any in the audience owed their lives to Winton, and, if so, to stand – more than two dozen people surrounding Winton rose and applauded.
Notable people saved
- Alfred Dubs, Baron Dubs
- Karel Reisz
- Joe Schlesinger
- Renata Laxova
- Heini Halberstam
Sir Nicholas is on record as acknowledging the vital roles of Beatrice Wellington, Doreen Warriner, Trevor Chadwick and others in Prague. Winton was only in Prague for about three weeks before the Nazis invaded. He never set foot on Prague Station. As he wrote “…Chadwick did the more difficult and dangerous work after the Nazis invaded…he deserves all praise”. The full story is told in “The Rescue of the Prague Refugees 1938–39”, with which Sir Nicholas says he is “delighted”.
In the 1983 Queen’s Birthday Honours, Winton was appointed 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 2002 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.
Winton was awarded Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Fourth Class, by the Czech President 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. He was also nominated by the Czech government for the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize.
The minor planet 19384 Winton was named in his honour by Czech astronomers Jana Tichá and Miloš Tichý.
Although Winton was baptised as a Christian, his Jewish origins disqualified him from being declared a Righteous Among the Nations by Israel. In 2010, Winton was named a British Hero of the Holocaust by the British Government.
A statue in his honour was unveiled at Maidenhead railway station by Home Secretary and local MP for Maidenhead, Theresa May, in September 2010. Created by Lydia Karpinska, it depicts Winton relaxing on a bench whilst reading a book.
Another statue in his honour is on ‘platform one’ of the Praha hlavní nádraží railway station. It depicts Winton holding a child and standing next to another one. Created by Flor Kent, it was unveiled as part of a larger commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the last Kindertransport train, 1 September 2009 (see also Winton train, below).
To celebrate his 100th birthday, he 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.
On 1 September 2009 a special “Winton Train” set off from the Prague Main railway station. The train, comprising an original locomotive and carriages used in the 1930s, headed to 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, due to set off on 3 September 1939 but prevented by the outbreak of the Second World War. At the train’s departure, Winton’s statue was unveiled at the railway station.
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.