British Banker Nicholas Winton Saved the Lives of Hundreds of Children During WWII
The Holocaust was an unspeakable atrocity responsible for the death and degradation of millions. Even more might have perished if it wasn’t for the bravery of heroes like Sir Nicholas Winton, who led an undertaking to lead hundreds of children safely out of danger from Nazi Germany to safety.
Winton (nee Wertheim) was born in 1909 in Britain to German-Jewish parents who had emigrated just two years before. The family anglicized their name and converted to Christianity in an attempt to assimilate in their new home. His father Rudolph was a bank manager and Nicholas grew up to join the finance world as well.
Young Winton was educated and did his early professional work in France and Germany before returning home and becoming a broker on the London Stock Exchange. An excellent athlete as a young man, he was so proficient in fencing that he had plans to compete in the 1944 Olympics that were ultimately canceled due to World War II. He was also a socialist, who developed an early opposition to the Nazi party in Germany, which later fueled his philanthropy during the war.
In December 1938, Winton had plans to travel to Switzerland for a skiing vacation. However, his holiday was postponed when friends convinced him to go to Prague and meet with Martin Blake, an associate of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, within a country where Germany had just begun an invasion. He was immediately drawn to the cause and went to work organizing how to assist children from Jewish families escape from the clutches of the Nazis.
Winton initially spent a month in Prague involved in the rescue work with a number of like-minded people. That November, following Kristallnacht (the night of Broken Glass) in Germany, Britain passed a measure that allowed refugees younger than 17 to enter their country as long as they had a place to stay and a bond of 50 pounds was deposited with the government to go towards their eventual return to their home country.
Key in Winton’s efforts was getting permission for refugees to cross into the Netherlands. Once in place, that allowed him to transport some 669 children into England. Sadly, the parents of many ended up dying in concentration camps, but in a glimmer of hope, the English benefactor and his mother worked tirelessly to find foster homes and hostels for their young charges who had made it to safety.
Through 1939, when the closing of borders finally made it nearly impossible to continuing the human smuggling, Winton advertised looking for home for his children. He also wrote to politicians around the world, like United States President Franklin Roosevelt, asking that they take in more refugees in an attempt to somehow stem the horrible tragedy occurring in Europe. Sadly, only Sweden stepped up, causing Winton to later lament that action from other nations might have saved thousands more children.
Although not all of the refugees Winton helped find new lives were later able to be identified, there were some who went on to live notable lives, including immunologist Leslie Baruch Brent, geneticist Heini Halberstam and poet Gerda Mayer.
Despite initially identifying as a conscientious observer, as the war went on and his efforts to save children were stifled, Winton relented and joined the Royal Air Force in 1940. He became an officer and finally relinquished his commission in 1954 with the honorary rank of flight lieutenant.
His rescue work during the war quickly slipped from public consciousness and was relatively unknown for decades. It finally surfaced again in 1988 when his wife found one of his scrapbooks, filled with names and details in their attic, and gave it to a Holocaust researcher, who started diving into the results of his amazing efforts.
The BBC television show That’s Life! reached out to 80 of the children from one of his lists and invited them and Winton (who had no idea what was happening) to be in the audience for an episode. The show discussed his work, and at one point, host Esther Rantzen, asked if anyone present in the audience owed their lives to Winton, and if so, to stand up. To Winton’s astonishment, more than two dozen people rose and gave him an ovation. Rantzen then asked if anyone was the child or grandchild of one of the saved children. When the rest of the audience stood, the aging banker openly sobbed.
Winton was appointed to be a member of the Order of the British Empire in 1983 due to work he did later in life establishing Abbeyfield housing charity for the elderly. He was then knighted in 2003 because of his services to humanity. This incredible gentleman passed away in 2015 at the age of 106, having lived one of the longest and richest lives possible.
In the face of unimaginable tragedy and atrocities, Winton stepped up and proved that one person could make quite an impact. His work in saving children that may have otherwise been brutally murdered touched the rest of the world, as the hundreds he assisted went on to live their lives and do amazing things around the world.