Sir Nicholas George Winton, MBE, posthumously
An inspiring humanitarian, protector of the vulnerable, and lifesaver. An incredible example of a man governed by conscience and courage, who risked his own well-being in service of others, who saved hundreds of children in Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Holocaust and whose deeds were too long virtually unknown, who, in a less calamitous age, could have made other notable career choices, but finding himself in extraordinary times, conducted himself extraordinarily.
The 2016 Roger E. Joseph Prize was presented posthumously to Sir Nicholas George Winton, MBE, at the Ordination Ceremonies of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion on Sunday, May 8, 2016 at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York at Fifth Avenue at 65th Street, New York City. The Joseph Prize was accepted by his son, Nick Winton, Jr., in the presence of two of the 669 children Sir Winton rescued during the Holocaust.
A reluctant hero, Nicholas Winton said nothing for a half-century about his role in organizing the escape of 669 mostly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II. It was only after his wife found a scrapbook in the attic of their home in 1988 — a dusty record of names, pictures and documents detailing a story of redemption from the Holocaust — that he spoke of his all-but-forgotten work in the deliverance of children who, like the parents who gave them up to save their lives, were destined for Nazi concentration camps and extermination.
Winton was a London stockbroker in December 1938 when, on an impulse, he canceled a Swiss skiing vacation and flew to Prague at the behest of a friend who was aiding refugees in the Sudetenland, the western region of Czechoslovakia that had just been annexed by Germany. Winton found vast camps of refugees living in appalling conditions. The pogroms of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” had recently struck Jewish shops, homes and synagogues in Germany and Austria. War looked inevitable, and escape, especially for children, seemed hopeless, given the restrictions against Jewish immigration in the West.
Britain, however, was an exception. In late 1938, it began a program, called Kindertransport, to admit unaccompanied Jewish children up to age 17 if they had a host family, with the offer of a 50-pound warranty for an eventual return ticket. The Refugee Children’s Movement in Britain sent representatives to Germany and Austria, and 10,000 Jewish children were saved before the war began.
But there was no comparable mass-rescue effort in Czechoslovakia. Mr. Winton created one. It involved dangers, bribes, forgery, secret contacts with the Gestapo, nine railroad trains, an avalanche of paperwork and a lot of money. Nazi agents started following him. In his Prague hotel room, he met terrified parents desperate to get their children to safety, although it meant surrendering them to strangers in a foreign land.
As their numbers grew, a storefront office was opened. Long lines attracted Gestapo attention. Perilous confrontations were resolved with bribes. Eventually he registered more than 900 children, although he had names and details on 5,000. In early 1939, he left two friends, Trevor Chadwick and Bill Barazetti, in charge in Prague and returned to London to find foster homes, raise money and arrange transportation.
He and a few volunteers, including his mother, calling themselves the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, Children’s Section, enlisted aid from the Refugee Children’s Movement, had photos of the children printed and appealed for funds and foster homes in newspaper ads and church and synagogue bulletins. Hundreds of families volunteered to take children, and money trickled in from donors — not enough to cover all the costs, but Mr. Winton made up the difference himself. He also appealed to the Home Office for entry visas, but the response was slow and time was short, because it was just a few months before the war broke out, so he forged the Home Office entry permits.
In Prague, Chadwick quietly cultivated the chief of the Gestapo, Karl Bömelburg and arranged for forged transit papers and bribes to be passed to key Nazis and Czech railway officials, who threatened to halt trains or seize the children unless they were paid off. Winton sent more money, some for bribes and some to cover expenses for children whose parents had been arrested and shot or had fled into hiding, while many of the Czech families sold possessions to pay for their children’s escape.
On March 14, 1939, it all came together. Hours before Hitler dismembered the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia as a German “Protectorate,” the first 20 children left Prague on a train. Survivors told of searing scenes on the station platform in the final moments before departure as children sobbed and pleaded not to be sent away and parents faced giving up their children.
Winton and his colleagues later arranged for eight more trains to get the rest of the children out, crossing the Third Reich through Nuremberg and Cologne to the Hook of Holland, then across the North Sea by boat to Harwich, Essex, and on by British rail to the Liverpool Street Station in London. There, he and the host families met the children. Each refugee had a small bag and wore a name tag.
But only seven of the eight trains made it through, the last in early August, bringing the total rescued to 669. About 250 children, the largest group, were on board the last train out, on Sept. 1, 1939. On that day, however, Hitler invaded Poland, all borders controlled by Germany were closed and Winton’s rescue efforts came to an end. Within hours of the announcement, the train disappeared and none of the 250 children aboard was ever seen again. All were believed to have perished in concentration camps.
Nearly all the saved children were orphans by war’s end, their parents killed at Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, or Theresienstadt. After the war, many remained in Britain, but others returned to Czechoslovakia or emigrated to Israel, Australia, or the United States. The survivors, many now in their 70s and 80s, still call themselves “Winton’s Children.” Their descendants now exceed 6,000.