Nicholas Winton and the refugee children
In November 1938 the Nazi pogrom known as Kristallnacht finally sounded alarm bells in Britain over the plight of the Jews in Europe. At the time the Germans were finalizing and tightening their grip on Czechoslovakia, despite the promises made at Munich that the Sudetenland was Adolf Hitler’s final territorial ambition on the continent. The British House of Commons agreed to a modification of Britain’s refugee policy, deciding to allow the entry of youths under the age of 17. The policy mandated that those entering Britain must have a pre-arranged place of residence. It also required the deposit or guaranteed promise of fifty pounds sterling to ensure their return to their home country.
Nicholas Winton was a stock broker in London, with experience working as a banker in Hamburg and Berlin. His political position, somewhat strangely for a banker and investment specialist, leaned towards socialism. He opposed the Nazis and those in England who supported appeasing rather than taking steps to contain Hitler’s ambitions. In December 1938 Winton was planning a ski trip to Switzerland when he received a request from a friend in Prague, Martin Blake, who asked him to come to that city to assist him with a new project. Blake worked for the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia.
Winton faced two immediate problems when he arrived in Prague to assist in relocating refugee children to Britain. The first was finding families willing to take the children in Britain. The second was getting them there. The normal route was by train to the Netherlands and then by ferry to the United Kingdom. Following Kristallnacht the Dutch had closed their borders to refugees, and any found attempting to slip past the border guards were returned to Germany. Trains and the ferry landings were searched for refugees. Winton established an office in his Prague hotel room and went to work.
As 1939 unfolded, Winton managed to persuade the Dutch to allow the trains carrying refugees, backed by assurances to the Dutch from the British government that German reprisals on the Netherlands would be opposed by the British. Finding homes for the children was done through advertisement in the British press and on the BBC, in churches and synagogues, and wherever Winton could find a response. In many cases the families accepting the children provided the fifty pound bond. Winton managed to move 669 children to safety in the summer of 1939. The last train, carrying 250 children, was scheduled to depart Prague on September 1, the day the Germans invaded Poland. The Germans stopped that train and the children went to the camps.
Winton did little to advertise his own achievement rescuing so many children, not all of whom were Jewish, following the war. In 1988 his wife found papers detailing the work, including the names of the children and the families which took them in. After she passed on the material to Holocaust researchers the world learned anew of Winton’s role in saving the lives of so many. He received a Knighthood, among many other honors, all of which he felt were too much for what he had done. He died at the age of 106 in 2015, 76 years to the day after the departure of one of his rescue trains carrying 241 children left Prague.