A salute to the 'British Schindler' as he turns 104
Nicholas Winton saved hundreds of Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. I wish him a happy birthday this week Jonathan Romain
Friday 17 May 2013
Nicholas Winton with one of the children he rescued. Photograph: PA Photo
Nicholas Winton is famous because he did not turn over the page. While many British people tut-tutted when they read about the plight of Jews in central Europe under the Nazis in late 1938 and then turned to the next item of news, he took action. At the time, he was working as a broker at the London Stock Exchange and was about to go on a skiing trip as a Christmas break. Instead, he received an urgent call from a friend to come to Prague, where the latter was visiting a refugee camp. Winton cancelled his holiday, went over and saw the situation facing the Jews in the Nazi-occupied part of Czechoslovakia.
Winton became convinced that a human tragedy was looming ‑ which only immediate action could avert ‑ and focused on the need to rescue the endangered children. However, Britain had already set a limit on the number of children it would let in, which was happening through the Kindertransport programme. So he returned to England to persuade the Home Office to grant additional entry permits and for whom he personally would find sponsors so that they were not a burden on the state.
With the help of others, he also organised foster parents to provide homes for the children until they were 17, as well as the transport to bring them to England. This involved a considerable amount of work, dealing with the Home Office, finding sympathetic families and co-ordinating arrangements with the Czech authorities. In March 1939, a train left Prague carrying refugee children to England. Another five such trains were commissioned, bringing a total of 669 children to safety. A further train was due to depart from Prague on 1 September, but was unable to leave because of the imminent outbreak of war and virtually all the children died in the concentration camps.
Winton's rescue work was largely unknown until 1988, when it was featured on Esther Rantzen's television programme That's Life. This only came about because his wife found an old suitcase in the attic containing files about his mission, which had occurred before they met and about which she had known nothing, and she thought it a story worth telling. It led to widespread praise for his efforts and a reunion of Winton's "children", many of whom had become parents and grandparents by then, with the result that the number of lives he has saved has multiplied to several thousand. Some had become famous in their own right, such as Labour politician Alfred (later Lord) Dubs and film director Karel Reisz, whose works included the French Lieutenant's Woman. The ring he received as a gift of thanks from them all was inscribed with a line from the rabbinic code, the Talmud, "Save one life, save the world". In recognition of his efforts on behalf of the Czech children, he was knighted in 2002.
He is frequently referred to in the media as "the British Schindler", a reference to the German industrialist who used his factory in Poland to save hundreds of Jewish workers from the gas chambers. In 2010 a bronze statue of Winton was placed on one of the platforms at Maidenhead railway station, a reminder to commuters that, however stressed they may feel, their lives are carefree in comparison to those in former times.
Winton himself expresses surprise at all the attention he has received and denies that he was courageous, claiming that "I was at the right place at the right time". He is much mistaken. He deliberately went to the right place and then acted in the right way, and at a time when many others did neither. He deserves every accolade that he is given. Sir Nicholas will turn 104 on 19 May. Let us all wish him a happy birthday.
• This article was commissioned after a suggestion from Leopold1904.
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