Sir Nicholas George Winton, MBE (born Nicholas Wertheim, 19 May 1909) is a British humanitarian who organized the rescue of 669, mostly Jewish, children from Nazi-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 British press has dubbed him the “British Schindler”. On 28 October 2014 he was awarded the highest honour of the Czech Republic, the Order of the White Lion, by Czech President Miloš Zeman. [from Wikipedia]
Nicholas Winton was born on 19 May 1909 in Hampstead, London, a son of German Jewish parents who had moved to London two years earlier. The family name was Wertheim, but they changed it to Winton in an effort at integration. They also 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. He then went to Hamburg, where he worked at Behrens Bank, followed by Wasserman Bank in Berlin. In 1931, he moved to France and worked for the Banque Nationale de Crédit in Paris. He also earned a banking qualification in France. Returning to London, he became a broker at the London Stock Exchange. Though a stockbroker, Winton was also “an ardent socialist who became close to Labour Party party luminaries Aneurin Bevan, Jennie Lee and Tom Driberg.” Through another socialist friend, Martin Blake, Winton became part of a leftwing circle opposed to appeasement and concerned about the dangers posed by the Nazis.
Shortly before Christmas 1938, Winton was planning to travel to Switzerland for a skiing holiday. He decided instead to visit Prague and help Martin Blake, who was in Prague as an associate of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, and had called Winton to ask him to assist in Jewish welfare work. Winton single-handedly established an organisation to aid children from Jewish families at risk from the Nazis. He set up his office at a dining room table in his hotel in Wenceslas Square. In November 1938, following the Kristallnacht in Nazi-ruled Germany, the House of Commons approved a measure to allow the entry into Britain of refugees younger than 17, provided they had a place to stay and a warranty of £50 was deposited for their eventual return to their own country.
An important obstacle was getting official permission to cross into the Netherlands, as the children were destined to embark on the ferry at Hoek van Holland. After the Kristallnacht in November 1938, the Dutch government officially closed its borders to any Jewish refugees. The border guards, marechaussee, searched for them and returned any found to Germany, despite the horrors of Kristallnacht being well known: from the border, the synagogue in Aachen could be seen burning just 3 miles away.
Winton succeeded, thanks to the guarantees he had obtained from Britain. After the first train, crossing the Netherlands went smoothly. A Dutch woman, Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer saved another 1000 Jewish children, mostly from Vienna and Berlin via the Hook, though it is not known whether she and Winton ever met. In 2012, a statue was erected on the quay at the Hook to commemorate all who had saved Jewish children.
Winton found homes in Britain for 669 children, many of whose parents would perish in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Winton’s mother worked with him to place the children in homes and later hostels. Throughout the summer, Winton placed advertisements seeking families to accept them. The last group of 250, scheduled to leave Prague on 1 September 1939, did not reach safety. Hitler had invaded Poland and the Second World War had begun.
Rev John Fieldsend (born Hans Heinrich Feige), a former Anglican vicar and my boss at CMJ in the 1980s, tells his story here and here:
He escaped Prague at the age of seven with his older brother Gert, leaving behind his mother Trude and father Curt. The Feiges, a German-Czech Jewish family, had fled to Czechoslovakia from Germany in 1937 only to find themselves again under threat.
“By April 1939 my parents realised the game was up, and my father sat my brother and me down and told us we were going on a long journey,” he recalls. He and Gert soon found themselves standing on a station platform, one small suitcase each, saying farewell to their mother. “As it came time to leave, she took off her wristwatch and gave it to us,” he remembers. “For us it was a mixture of fear and adventure – we didn’t really understand.”
The pain of separation from parents was put to one side as the children adapted to their new lives. “At that age you just want to get on with life, to bury the past in a big black hole,” says John. “I learnt English in eight weeks and forgot German in eight weeks. We were able to correspond for a week or two with our parents via the Red Cross, but then nothing.”
Prayer: Thank you Lord for Nicholas Winton, the role he played in organising the kindertransport, and all the lives he saved. What a tremendous example of courage and love he demonstrated. Help us to love in practical ways, especially in the face of evil. In Yeshua’s name we pray. Amen.
Nicholas Winton was born in May 1909, and baptised a Christian. He does not subscribe to any faith. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8227798.stm)
He has never been burdened, says Barbara, by an introspective nature. He just gets on with it and takes life as it comes – probably the secret of reaching 105. Religion has, though, always interested him, and I ask him whether he wonders what comes next, what’s beyond this life. “I don’t think anything comes next. I don’t think there is a next.” Does that bother him? “It’s no use bothering about something that you can’t affect.”
Winton has come to see religion as organised hypocrisy. “I know crowds of people who go to church and the synagogue who aren’t religious. What is needed is something in which they can all believe irrespective of religion, which in most cases, dare I say it, is a facade. We need something else, and that something is ethics. Goodness, kindness, love, honesty. If people behaved ethically, no problem.” He has bent the ear of his local MP, Theresa May, about this, and says that whenever she sees him she immediately says “Ethics!”.
He is pessimistic about the future, anxious about nuclear weapons and our spiralling capacity for destruction. He also doubts that the probing eye of round-the-clock TV news will ensure that the mass delusion and passivity of democracies in the 1930s never recurs. “It needs more than that. It needs a complete reconception of life. Too late for me. ‘Know then thyself, presume not God to scan / The proper study of Mankind is Man.’ Whether that works I don’t know. It’s hasn’t worked so far.”
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