It is hard to think of a more altruistic act of kindness than Sir Nicholas Winton’s heroic effort to save hundreds of Jewish refugee children from Czechoslovakia in 1939.
Winton, who died in Maidenhead, England, this week at the age of 106, had not intended to mount the urgent rescue mission. The then 29-year-old stockbroker had been looking forward to spending his Christmas 1938 break skiing in Switzerland.
That was before he received a phone call from an old friend by the name of Martin Blake, who was in Prague as an associate of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, asking Winton to lend a helping hand.
Seeing the desperate plight of the Jews in the German- controlled Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, Winton immediately set up a makeshift office in his hotel room in Prague and began receiving parents who were desperate to get their children to the safety of Britain – the only country that was willing to take in Jewish children from Nazi-ruled countries, but with several provisos. They had to come without their parents, the children – or kinder – could not be aged above 17, and a £50 guarantee, per child, was required to cover the costs of their eventual return to their country of origin when that became possible. Naturally, no one considered the possibility that the children’s parents would not still be alive at that point.
Winton applied to the Home Office in Britain for visas for the children, and when the infamous British red tape slowed things down he had the requisite papers forged.
There was much wheeling and dealing in Czechoslovakia, including with high ranking Gestapo officers, to facilitate the exit of the kinder, but eventually Winton managed to register 900 children for transfer to the UK.
In the event, 669 children got out, with the last leaving in late July 1939. One train, which was due to leave Prague on September 1, was not allowed out, since Germany had invaded Poland and World War II had started.
The failure to get the last transport out of Czechoslovakia rankled Winton and was the reason he never told anyone about his heroic exploits, not even his wife, Grete.
The story only came to light in the late 1980s, after Grete Winton discovered a box full of papers and journals relating to the rescue operation in the attic. The BBC subsequently made a documentary about the operation and Winton became a reluctant celebrity. Queen Elizabeth bestowed several honors on him, including a knighthood in 2002, and he received the Czech Republic’s highest honor. The Czechs even put his name forward for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Hugo Meron, 85, who lives in Tel Aviv, was on the last “Winton train” in July 1939, together with his younger brother. All the rest of Meron’s family, other than an uncle, perished.
“Nicky was an amazing person,” says Meron who, like the rest of the Czech kinder, only learned of Winton’s role in his survival half a century later. “I was in touch with him, and I spoke to him the last time three weeks ago. He didn’t want to go on living. He had had enough. His mind was clear but he was fed up. His body had given out.”
Several years after discovering the identity of his savior, Meron got together with nine other “Winton children” who had made aliya and brought Winton over to Israel with the intention of having him recognized as a Righteous Among the Gentiles by Yad Vashem.
The plan fell through because of a couple of technicalities.
“We didn’t know the reasons at the time, but one was not a very good one,” observes Meron. “They said they do not give the award to anyone who has Jewish blood in them according to the Nuremberg rules, because his parents and grandparents were Jewish. I think his parents were baptized and changed their name to Winton in order to get work in England. The other reason Yad Vashem gave was a good one, that the Righteous Among the Gentiles award is only given to people who save Jews in areas under German occupation. In December 1938, the Germans had not yet invaded Czechoslovakia.”
Ramat Hasharon resident Kurt Stern is the same age as Meron and also left Czechoslovakia on the July 1939 kindertransport.
“Nicky was a real hero and truly righteous person,” says Stern. “And he was so humble.
I went to see him at his home in England several times and I stayed in contact with him.
I cannot possibly express my gratitude for what he did for me. It’s a pity there weren’t another 5,000 like Nicky.”
Aliza Tenenbaum was not a “Winton kind.” She made it to England on a Kindertransport out of Vienna in 1939 and attended last year’s event in London, which marked the 75th anniversary of the start of the Kindertransport operation.
Winton and the kinder in attendance were received by Prince Charles at his London residence. Tenenbaum, who organizes all the Israeli kinder reunions and other activities, had met Winton at a previous gathering, in Israel.
“When Nicky was 100 years old, the kinder in Israel organized an event for him at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque,” she recalls. “It was very moving to meet him. Can you imagine, after all the wonderful things he achieved, he didn’t talk about what he did in Czechoslovakia because he didn’t get that last train of children out. That was a mark of the man.”