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Nicholas Winton: The 'One Life' hero who saved 699 children from the Holocaust
During the nine months before the outbreak of WW2 in September 1939, 10,000 Jewish children aged 17 and under were evacuated from Germany, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia and brought to the United Kingdom as refugees. It was known as the Kindertransport, which in German translates as ‘children’s transport’, and offers a rare story of hope and salvation during one of the darkest periods of human history.
Ever since Hitler and the Nazi’s rose to power in 1933, life for Jewish Germans became increasingly difficult. Anti-Semitic legislation was passed in the coming years and a variety of laws and directives began to restrict the human rights of Jews in Germany.
In 1938, countries from across the globe gathered in France for the Évian Conference. The gathering was the initiative of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the hope was to garner guarantees that countries would accept more Jewish refugees wishing to flee Nazi Germany. The conference ended with little progress and on the night of November 9-10, 1938, the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany escalated dramatically.
It would become known as the Kristallnacht (‘Night of the Broken Glass’) as state-sanctioned riots targeting Jews were carried out across the country. When it was over, 91 Jews had been murdered, 30,000 had been arrested and sent to concentration camps, around 7,000 Jewish businesses had been ransacked and 267 synagogues destroyed.
Although the event sent shockwaves around the world, little changed in regards to the acceptance of Jewish refugees by other countries. The United Kingdom, however, did finally take action. The British government swiftly agreed to take an unknown number of unaccompanied children from the ages of 17 and under. They would be granted a temporary visa on the understanding that when safe they would return to their families. They were also not to be a burden on the state, with each child refugee requiring a sponsor before being granted entry.
Various organisations including the Refugee Children’s Movement (RCM) immediately began planning evacuations, whilst charities and private donations funded the rescue operation.
A nationwide appeal for foster homes (Jewish and non-Jewish alike) began and soon up to 500 offers had come in. A network of organisers was quickly established in Germany and Austria who began to compile a list of the most vulnerable Jewish children.
Allowed to bring just a small suitcase and a tiny sum of money with them, the children were provided with an ID card and then piled onto trains heading for the nearest dock. For many, this would be the last time they saw their parents.
The first arrival on British shores landed on 2 December 1938 at Harwich in Essex. The boat was carrying 196 children.
Those who had already been assigned a foster home headed for London via train to meet their new families, whilst those without such an allocation yet went to live in hostels across the country. Although this was an incredibly traumatic time for the children, finding themselves in a foreign land without their parents, and many of whom spoke little or no English, they were at least safe.
The Kindertransport continued right up to the start of WW2, with the last train departing from Berlin on 1 September 1939, the same day Germany invaded Poland. Smaller evacuations occurred across the continent as the war began to rage, with the final arrival of Jewish children coming to Britain in May 1940.
Much of the success of the Kinderstransport relied on the actions of individuals. One such person was Nicholas Winton (later Sir Nicholas), a young British banker from London. Born to German-Jewish parents who emigrated to Britain in the early 20th century, Nicholas became acutely aware of what was unfolding on the continent during the 1930s.
An ardent socialist, Nicholas was concerned about the dangers the Nazi party posed and in the winter of 1938 began taking action to help those being affected by Hitler's policies.
Instead of heading to Switzerland for a skiing holiday, Nicholas went to Prague just before Christmas 1938. He’d been contacted by an old friend called Martin Blake, who was in Prague on behalf of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia. Blake had asked if Nicholas could come and help with the escalating humanitarian crisis unfolding in Czechoslovakia. ‘I have a most interesting assignment and I need your help,’ Blake wrote. ‘Don't bother bringing your skis’.
Upon arrival, Nicholas was instantly appalled by what he saw. The situation facing Jews was nothing short of horrific. Many were huddled in refugee camps that were fast overcrowding. The onset of winter brought additional hardship.
Believing he could make a difference, Nicholas immediately began hatching a plan to evacuate the Jewish children to safety in Britain. Utilising his contacts back home, Nicholas, along with Blake and other colleagues, set up a base of operations from their hotel room in Prague. Families who wished to send their children to Britain began registering their names with Nicholas and his team.
Nicholas then had the monumental task of safely organising transport for the children across Nazi Germany and Europe, whilst also cutting through the mountains of red tape that lay before him by the British authorities. The British government would only allow the most vulnerable children to enter and each had to already have a foster family secured before departure.
Nicholas returned to London and placed ads in newspapers asking for volunteers to take children in. When families were secured, Nicholas and his colleagues began sending children on the trains towards Britain, the first departing in March 1938. Transports would continue throughout the summer but were eventually halted due to the outbreak of war.
In the end, Nicholas helped save the lives of 669 children, although he would always remember those he couldn’t save. ‘I think not of the children who came but of the children who should have come and didn’t come’, Nicholas later said in an interview with the BBC.
Nicholas’s rescue efforts went relatively unknown for nearly half a century after the war ended. It wasn’t until his wife found a book in their attic detailing the names of all the children Nicholas had managed to save that his story finally came to light.
In 2003, Nicholas was knighted by the Queen and in 2014 he received the highest honour of the Czech Republic, the Order of the White Lion.
Nicholas died in 2015 at the age of 106.
One Life, a new film about Nicholas Winton's remarkable story starring Anthony Hopkins, will be released on New Year's Day 2024.