I am not much of a joiner and I usually go out of my way to avoid becoming a member of an organization. However, I have been a Rotarian for 30 years, and the story of Rotarian Nicholas Winton who died this week at 106 makes me glad I joined:
Independently of Operation Kindertransport (see sidebar), Nicholas Winton set up his own rescue operation. At first, Winton’s office was a dining room table at his hotel in Wenceslas Square in Prague. Anxious parents, who gradually came to understand the danger they and their children were in, came to Winton and placed the future of their children into his hands. Soon, an office was set up on Vorsilska Street, under the charge of Trevor Chadwick. Thousands of parents heard about this unique endeavor and hundreds of them lined up in front of the new office, drawing the attention of the Gestapo. Winton’s office distributed questionnaires and registered the children. Winton appointed Trevor Chadwick and Bill Barazetti to look after the Prague end when he returned to England. Many further requests for help came from Slovakia, a region east of Prague.
Winton contacted the governments of nations he thought could take in the children. Only Sweden and his own government said yes. Great Britain promised to accept children under the age of 18 as long as he found homes and guarantors who could deposit £50 for each child to pay for their return home.
Because he wanted to save the lives of as many of the endangered children as possible, Winton returned to London and planned the transport of children to Great Britain. He worked at his regular job on the Stock Exchange by day, and then devoted late afternoons and evenings to his rescue efforts, often working far into the night. He made up an organization, calling it “The British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, Children’s Section.” The committee consisted of himself, his mother, his secretary and a few volunteers.
Winton had to find funds to use for repatriation costs, and a foster home for each child. He also had to raise money to pay for the transports when the children’s parents could not cover the costs. He advertised in British newspapers, and in churches and synagogues. He printed groups of children’s photographs all over Britain. He felt certain that seeing the children’s photos would convince potential sponsors and foster families to offer assistance. Finding sponsors was only one of the endless problems in obtaining the necessary documents from German and British authorities.
On March 14, 1939, Winton had his first success: the first transport of children left Prague for Britain by airplane. Winton managed to organize seven more transports that departed from Prague’s Wilson Railway Station. The groups then crossed the English Channel by boat and finally ended their journey at London’s Liverpool Street station. At the station, British foster parents waited to collect their charges. Winton, who organized their rescue, was set on matching the right child to the right foster parents.
The last trainload of children left on August 2, 1939, bringing the total of rescued children to 669. It is impossible to imagine the emotions of parents sending their children to safety, knowing they may never be reunited, and impossible to imagine the fears of the children leaving the lives they knew and their loved ones for the unknown.
On September 1, 1939 the biggest transport of children was to take place, but on that day Hitler invaded Poland, and all borders controlled by Germany were closed. This put an end to Winton’s rescue efforts. Winton has said many times that the vision that haunts him most to this day is the picture of hundreds of children waiting eagerly at Wilson Station in Prague for that last aborted transport.
Go here to read the rest. Winton did all of this for nine months as a volunteer operating largely on his own. He used his own money to bribe Nazi officials to get the kids out. Born a Jew he used to say that he saved the kids because they were kids and not Jewish kids. Perhaps the most remarkable part of his story is that for the next fifty years he never said a word about what he had done, until his wife in 1988 found a scrapbook where he listed the kids he had saved and she asked him about them.
Winton was bemused by the honors showered on him late in his life, including a knighthood. He thought that he had merely done what any decent person would have done in his place. Ah, but so many can recognize great evil, but how few do anything about it? Confronted by a deadly evil about to consume the world, Winton acted when most people stood still. May he now be enjoying a great reward for loving his neighbor as himself.