Sir Nicholas Winton has become known as the humanitarian who helped devise a plan to rescue 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia in 1939 at the dawn of World War II.
He was born Nicholas George Wertheimer on 19 May 1909 in London. He was the son of Jewish German parents, Rudolf and Barbara Wertheimer, but the family decided to change their surname from Wertheim to Winton to blend in, in Britain.
His father was a successful banker and the family lived in a 20-room mansion in West Hampstead, London. Sir Nicholas attending Stowe School in Buckingham, and afterwards followed in his father’s footsteps and became an apprentice in international banking. He worked in banks in London, Berlin and Paris and returned to England in 1931 to begin his career as a stockbroker.
A planned skiing trip to the Swiss Alps in December 1938 was skipped when Winton decided to visit his friend, who was working with refugees in Sudetenland in the western area of Czechoslovakia. It has fallen under German control and it was here that Winton witnessed first hand the dreadful situation in refugee camps there. The camps were overflowing with Jewish families and other political prisoners.
Upset by what he saw he went back to England and started organising a rescue effort to evacuate Jewish children from Austria and Germany to England. He organised a tight group of trusted people and worked under the guise of the British Committee for Refugees where he began taking applications from Czech parents at a Prague hotel. As you can imagine thousands lined up outside the hotel.
Winton found adoptive parents, secured entry permits and raised funds to cover the costs of the children’s travels. If the donations didn’t cover these costs then Winton paid for them out of his own pocket.
On 14th March 1939, just before Adolph Hitler and the German Nazis took Czechoslovakia, the first train carrying Jewish children left the country. During the course of five months, Winton and the small team he’d assembled managed to successful evacuation seven more trains, bringing a total of 669 children to safety.
Unfortunately, as the ninth train was set to leave on 1st September 1939, with another 250 Jewish children, it never left the station as on that day, Hitler invaded Poland and closed off all the borders under German control.
This was the start of World War II and regrettably brought Winton’s rescue work to an end.
Only the small group of people knew of Winton’s great work, that is until in 1988 his wife, Grete Gjelstrup, whom he’d married in 1948 and had three children with, found an old scrapbook stuffed with letters, pictures and travel documents, regarding his efforts to bring Jewish children to safety.
Winton was initially reluctant to discuss his rescue operation, but his wife Grete Gjelstrup, with his consent in the end, turned the scrapbook over to a Holocaust historian.
Winton became known as the British Oskar Schindler, who was the German businessman who saved some 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust.
After news broke of Winton’s rescue mission in 1939, he received an American Congressional resolution and also an honorary citizenship of Prague, the Czech Republic’s highest honour.
Not only were streets named after him, and statues erected in his honour, Queen Elizabeth II knighted him in 2003 followed by a Hero of the Holocaust medal in 2010. There is also a Czech school named after him and a small planet.
On 1st September 2009, Winton whom by now was 100 years old, greeted some of the original evacuees as they came into London on a special train marking the rescues from Prague to London.
The rescued children call themselves ‘Winton’s Children’ and they often visited his house to thank him.
Winton decided to celebrate his 100th birthday by flying in a small plane which was piloted by the daughter of one of the Jewish boys rescued all those years ago in 1939.
Nicholas Winton has been awarded the OBE and the Pride of Britain Award. There is a Czech school named after him, as well as a small planet.
Sadly Sir Winton is no longer with us having died in Slough, England, on 1st July 2015, aged 106 years old.
Feature Image: Sir Nicholas Winton with his Knighthood in 2003 (Picture: John Stillwell. WPA/Rota)