We are living through the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, with millions displaced from conflict zones in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria, and beyond. Many of these are children, and it is easy to despair when contemplating their trauma and their fate. But if we look back to the Holocaust, we can perhaps be inspired by the example of those very few who did what they could to rescue others.
One such was Nicholas Winton, a 29-year-old British banker who, in December 1938, canceled a holiday vacation to volunteer to help trapped refugee children escape the Nazis in Czechoslovakia. He is believed to have personally saved the lives of more than 600 children, demonstrating that even in the worst of times, any one of us can make a profound and positive difference.
Nicky, as he was known, was an upper-class Englishman, the son of German-Jewish converts to Christianity who was raised in a 20-room home in West Hempstead and educated in the best schools. Cultured, fluent in German and French, and a champion fencer who had sparred with fascist Oswald Mosley, he was a rising merchant banker in London when the Nazi-instigated night of brutality against Jews, Kristallnacht, took place in November 1938. He was shocked by the violence and galvanized to action on behalf of the persecuted.
The British government — in an outpouring of goodwill spearheaded by Home Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare, a Quaker — agreed to shelter the estimated 60,000 to 70,000 German and Austrian children left orphaned or under the Nazi threat. Former prime minister Stanley Baldwin took to the airwaves to plead with his fellow citizens to “come to the aid of victims not of any catastrophe in the natural world, not of an earthquake, not of flood, not of famine, but of an explosion of Man’s inhumanity to Man.” In response, the British people donated over half a million pounds. By early December, the first of the kindertransports carrying the survivors of a Berlin orphanage destroyed by stormtroopers arrived in Britain.
Just before Christmas, Winton was packing for a ski trip in Switzerland with his friend Martin Blake, a schoolmaster at Westminster, when Blake called to cancel. He instead urged Winton to join him in Prague, where he introduced Winton to Doreen Warriner, a lecturer at the London School of Economics who ran the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia. Warriner told Winton that the adult refugee issue was so overwhelming that no one had time to focus on the children. Blake recommended Winton for the job.
Winton took on the task. He made a quick tour of the local internment camps and was horrified by the refugees’ plight. “What suffering there is when armies start to march,” he wrote. Every day over the next two weeks, he worked well past midnight, only to be awoken at dawn by the knock of refugees on his hotel room door. They came to him seeking help getting their children to safety. Winton soon compiled a list of hundreds of children and requested — and was granted — another week’s leave from his London employer, who was mystified that the young banker preferred to do “heroic work” rather than enjoy his annual vacation.
Once back in London, Winton found relief groups too overwhelmed to help him save Czech children. “I have a motto that if something isn’t blatantly impossible,” he said, “there must be a way of doing it.” So he created a new “organization,” printing official stationery for his “British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia” and appointing himself “honorary secretary” for the children’s division. He struck a deal with the Home Office to approve the relocation of children on his list if he arranged a home, a medical certificate, and a deposit of the large sum of 50 pounds to cover the costs of their eventual repatriation. And then he went to work.
Each afternoon, after the London Stock Exchange closed, Winton and a few volunteers — including his mother — worked out of his house to locate guarantors and foster parents. They advertised in local papers, vetted families, and circulated photographs of endangered children. On March 14, the first group of children, 20 in all, were evacuated by plane to Britain, chaperoned by Trevor Chadwick, an Oxford-educated schoolmaster who Winton had left in charge in Prague. Chadwick held a sleeping baby on his lap the entire flight.
The next day, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, and air travel was suspended. The next group of children left in April by train, as would all future transports. Chadwick recalled the terrible farewell scenes at Prague’s Wilson Station — weeping parents crowded into the enormous waiting room, the taxis that followed the trains until they were out of sight. Eventually, entire railcars and then entire trains were booked for the new kindertransport, which was chaperoned by adults who were required to return to the dangers of Prague at the end of the trip or risk future operations.
The children were allowed one piece of luggage and a small bag for a change of clothes and a favorite toy, stuffed animal, or book. The occasional musical instrument was permitted. At the German-Dutch border, SS guards delighted in terrifying the children, dumping out their luggage and confiscating their money. Eyewitnesses recalled that the older girls tried to comfort the younger children, many of whom burst into tears.
But once the train reached the Netherlands, Dutch volunteers brought cookies, lemonade, hot chocolate, and toys. The train next made its way to the Hook of Holland, where the refugees were boarded onto a ferry across the English Channel. After inspection in Harwich, the children took the train to London, disembarking at Liverpool Station. On the platform, each child waited for their name to be called by their sponsor.
Winton and his team met each train and kept careful records to ensure that each child found their way to their new home. Around each child’s neck was a large tag with a number printed on one side and their name and address on the other. The poignant images stuck a powerful chord throughout England. The children’s book author Michael Bond never forgot it. He later created Paddington Bear, another innocent refugee left alone in a different London station with such a tag around his neck. “Paddington, in a sense, was a refugee,” he said, “and I do think that there’s no sadder sight than refugees.”
From Zionists to socialists to Quakers, from the Barbican Mission to ordinary citizens, Britons of all classes, backgrounds, and beliefs opened their hearts, homes, and pocketbooks for the kindertransports, which were unique to Britain. Some children found themselves with Rothschilds, Sainsburys, and Attenboroughs, others with poor laborers. The future prime minister Clement Atlee housed a Jewish boy for four months.
Across England, many schools and summer camps welcomed those who could not find homes, a particular problem for teenage boys, and scores of volunteers from doctors to teachers tried to make the childrens’ lives feel as normal as possible. Every effort was made to keep siblings together.
By August, Winton had gotten nine transports out of Prague and one from Vienna. The largest, on June 1, carried 241 children. But with war now imminent, more than 5,000 children remained trapped inside Czechoslovakia. On Sept. 1, the day Hitler invaded Poland, 250 children on a train about to leave the station were disembarked and disappeared to fates unknown. Two days later, France and England declared war on Germany, and the Second World War was begun.
With the outbreak of war, the kindertransports ended. When the German bombing of Britain known as the blitz began, refugee children were evacuated along with the British to the English countryside. More than 900 of them eventually enlisted, including 150 young women. Thirty were killed fighting for the Allies.
As a pacifist, Winton volunteered as an ambulance driver and joined the RAF as a flight instructor. Following the war, he briefly returned to the world of banking but found that it no longer suited him. He eventually moved on to charitable work. And for decades, he never spoke about his extraordinary rescue mission.
In the late 1980s, Winton’s wife of 40 years discovered a scrapbook in the attic. There was a picture of the 29-year-old bespectacled Nicky Winton holding a small child at Liverpool Station. And there were copies of his lists, photographs, and full documentation of the entire operation. When she asked him about the cache, Winton replied, “It didn’t seem that important.” He had not sought credit for what he had done, and for years he had lived a quiet life, gardening and volunteering. He was, he admitted, saddened by the fate of the many children he could not save.
In 1988, the BBC show “That’s Life” surprised Winton live on the air by revealing that more than two dozen adults sitting in the audience had been among the children he had saved. The rest of the studio audience was filled with their children and grandchildren, all of whom owed him their lives and stood as one to thank a visibly moved and teary-eyed Winton.
All told, the kindertransports to Britain are estimated to have rescued some 10,000 children from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. Were it not for Nicholas Winton, 669 children, most of them Jews, would have almost certainly been murdered; of the 15,000 Czechoslovakian children sent to concentration camps, only 180 survived.
Winton eventually became a beloved figure in the United Kingdom. The late Queen Elizabeth knighted him in 2003. In 2014, Winton was given the Order of the White Lion, the highest honor of the Czech Republic. He died in his sleep a year later, at the age of 106.
Winton’s story remains an object lesson in how each of us in our own way can make a difference. “We must carry his spirit from generation to generation,” the Dalai Lama once said of Winton. “Then humanity’s future will be brighter.”
Richard Hurowitz is a writer, historian, and publisher, and the author of “In the Garden of the Righteous: The Heroes Who Risked Their Lives to Save Jews During the Holocaust.”