Sir Nicholas Winton: The British stockbroker who saved hundreds of children from the Holocaust
While the Nazis spent most of World War II demonstrating the horrors that human beings are capable of, the war also brought forth the heroes who dared to stand against them. Sir Nicholas Winston, who saved 669 children from the Holocaust, was one such example of those who helped to restore the world’s faith in humanity. During the late 1930s, when anti-Semitism had begun to rise across Europe, the young stockbroker decided to do whatever he could to help get hundreds of Jewish children to safety.
A mysterious invitation
In 1909, Sir Nicholas Winston was born as Nicholas Wertheimer to Jewish parents who had immigrated to England. In an attempt to help young Nicholas integrate into British life, his parents changed their last name to Winston and had their son baptized in the Anglican church. Winston’s life as a stockbroker was more or less normal until 1938 when a friend of his named Martin Blake asked him to blow off an upcoming ski holiday. Instead, Blake asked Winston to come and pay him a visit in Prague. With war looming on the horizon, Blake’s invitation simply stated, “I have a most interesting assignment and I need your help. Don’t bother bringing your skis.”
When Winston got to Prague, he was soon presented with an all too clear picture of just how bad things had gotten for Jewish families in German-occupied territories. Upon Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, the dictator had wasted no time in making life so unpleasant for Jewish people that many had been forced to evacuate their homes. The problem, however, was that many Jewish refugees found themselves unsure where to go next. As the Jews attempted to flee oppression, many countries only made it harder for them by tightening their immigration laws or flat out refusing to let them in. As a result, refugee camps with inhumane conditions became flooded with Jewish families who had no other place to go during the harsh winter.
Hell breaks loose for German-occupied Jews
The shift that would eventually provide Winston with an opportunity to help began on November 9, 1938. It would eventually come to be known as the “Night of Broken Glass,” due to the violence that broke out as people protested the Jews for…well, daring to be Jewish. When Britain got word that Synagogues were being burned, businesses were being destroyed, and open violence was getting even more out of hand, the country finally consented to open its doors to Jewish and Austrian children. Britain’s efforts to bring in children via ‘Kindertransport’ rescues would go on to save the lives of 10,000 children.
Sensing the impending descent of German forces on Czechoslovakia, Winton decided to mount a similar rescue effort for the children caught in the area’s impending danger. So he got together with his friends Martin Blake and Dorreen Warriner and set up a Children’s Section of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, even though he didn’t exactly have authorization at first. The friends sat up a makeshift office in Prague and began taking down names of people who were looking to transport their children to safety.
Winton’s work was far from over when he returned to London and began to wade through an ocean of red tape. The British government wasn’t exactly wide open about who they’d allow into the country, so Winton was forced to meet plenty of strict conditions. While a few of the kids on Winton’s list had family they could stay with upon their arrival in Britain, many others did not. So Winton set out to find hundreds of total strangers who were willing to open their hearts and homes by fostering the children when they made it into the country. In addition to setting up foster arrangements and working his day job down at the Stock Exchange, he also had to come up with 50 pounds for each child. This was because of the government’s insistence that there be funding in place for each child when they eventually left the country.
Overcoming impossible odds
Regardless of the challenges, Winton was able to pull off his dream and transported the first group of kids out of Prague by plane on March 14, 1939. His rescue efforts were able to save another seven groups of children, whom he transported out of Prague by trains and ships. He continued his rescues until he was forced to stop when Britain declared war on Germany in September of 1939.
Ironically, despite the 669 lives that Winton saved, the world had no idea of his rescue efforts until 1988. it was then that his wife found a scrapbook from 1939 that was filled with a complete list of names and photos of the children he had rescued. From that point on, his story began to spread as the press dubbed him the “British Schindler.”
In 2003, Queen Elizabeth II knighted him from his services to humanity and in 2014, the Czech Republic awarded him their highest honor, the Order of the White Lion (first class). He was also made an honorary citizen of Prague and received a letter of thanks from Ezer Weizman, the former Israeli president. Winton himself went on to live to the age of 106 before passing away in 2015. Soon after his death, the New York Times published the stories of some of the children whose lives he had saved through his rescue efforts.