Kindertransport Memory Quilt Square

Quilt 3, Square 1

Artist: Nicholas Winton

The quilt block was made by Nicholas Winton in 1997.

Nicholas Winton, Rescuer of Children from Czechoslovakia in 1939

In December 1938, at age 29, Nicholas Winton, (working as a stockbroker at the time) was planning his annual skiing holiday in Switzerland, but the day before his departure, a friend called up and said there were intriguing things going on in Prague and asked Winton to come over. He discovered Prague in absolute turmoil. Following the Munich Agreement, Hitler had ceded the Sudetenland September 1938.  On March 15, 1939, Hitler broke his word to the world by invading the rest of the country.  

In December 1938, Nicky Winton had a sense of what Hitler stood for, having witnessed the Nazi brutality while working in Germany some years earlier. After the occupation of the Sudetenland, thousands of terrified refugees (Jews, Communists and political dissidents) swirled from their homes throughout the Sudetenland, Austria and Poland, into the capital of the still independent Czechoslovakia, an independent Republic for only 20 years.  By December 1938, Prague was not only swarming with refugees but also with Nazi spies.  Organizations (mainly the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, as well as the Quakers, and the unions - the “Committee”) existed in Prague to help adult political and Jewish refugees.  None were prepared for organizing an exodus of the chil¬dren.

After visiting refugee camps and the Jewish communities in and around Prague, Nicholas Winton was absolutely taken with the idea of saving the children. Nicholas Winton’s genius was to see through the chaos and horror and see what had to be done to get the children out. Although Winton originally intended to stay only briefly in Prague, he extended his stay despite his boss’s reaction — “I don’t know why you want to waste your time in Czechoslovakia doing what you say is good work when there is money to be made on the stock exchange.”

Creating an initially unauthorized “Children’s Section” of the Committee, Winton set up operations in Prague, sometimes working out of his accommodations, the Hotel Sroubek (renamed Hotel Europa) on Wenceslas Square.

Word spread quickly through Prague and Czechoslovakia, and Winton was beseiged almost daily from 6:30 in the morning to 1:00 a.m. with pleas for help.  Aside from the problem of time, there were Nazi agents who continually followed and spied on Winton and other Committee workers.  Winton, fluent in German, brazenly reproached the spies for following him after which they made themselves scarce.

Winton immediately began compiling lists of children in need and danger regardless of religion.  By January 1939, he had a list and photographs of 760 children, which by May had increased to over 5,000.  About 85 percent were Jewish, and 25 percent of the children came from working-class families. Twenty children were flown to Sweden on January 12, 1939.  It is estimated that around 200 children were eventually flown out of Prague (mostly to Scandinavia).  Air transports however quickly became impossible, very likely because the National Bank refused to back the flights — as was required by international treaties.

In mid-January 1939, Winton returned to London to continue the incredible initiative.  Only able to work in the evenings after the Stock Exchange closed, he set up the “Children’s Section” out of his home, using fabricated stationery.  Through a widely read news magazine, the Picture Post, and the press in general (including radio), Winton started appealing for sponsors. However, when a photo was sent out, often the child was not accepted. Winton came up with the idea of sending out a picture postcard with photos of six children, which gave people a choice.  It sounds like an unpalatable marketing technique, but it was effective.

On March 15, 1939, the Nazis invaded the remainder of Czechoslovakia.  The day before, March 14, 1939, the first Kindertransport train left Prague.  Winton and his mother, Barbara, met every transport as it arrived in London. In all, eight train transports saved around 669 children.  A ninth train, due to depart on September 3rd, failed to leave the station in Prague, due to Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the outbreak of war that followed.  It left 250 children on the platform.  None are known to have survived, and as documented by Dr. Imrich Rosenberg in May 1945 — ”there are hardly any Jewish children alive” in Czechoslovakia.

Mr. Winton is an admirable mixture of humanness and piercing clarity of vision. He saw the needs of the children, he grasped the requirements of sponsors, guarantees, money, documents, and so forth, and he accomplished everything in a very short amount of time.  His efforts included contacting and working with a staggering number of organizations, Christian and Jewish, while also corresponding with government officials in England and the United States.  

Winton’s moral and ethical code can be gleaned from a letter he wrote in May 1939:

Tales of violence and war, concentration camps and social ostracism have become so commonplace…that the average person has completely lost his normal moral standard… [People] are content to consider themselves as individuals without responsibility for what is going on in the world today…[Some think that] if the individual were perfect, all would be perfect, and go home resolved to lead good lives. But there is a difference between passive goodness and active goodness; which is the giving of one’s time and energy in the alleviation of pain and suffering. It entails going out, finding and helping those suffering and in danger, not merely living an exemplary life.

When the war broke out in September 1939, Winton had to cease his efforts with the Kindertransport since all immigration had been halted.  After the war, Winton joined (as Assistant Director) the United Nation’s International Refugee Organization, Reparation Section in Geneva, Switzerland.  Their task was to recover loot which had been stolen by the Nazis. Subsequently, he joined the World Bank, European office in Paris, where he met his Danish wife Grete.  In 1950, he returned to England to be a Director of Koola Fruta (a frozen food company).

In 1965, Winton retired, devoting his time to charitable work and continuing as an active Rotarian.  The Wintons pioneered the Adult Training Center for the mentally handicapped and became active in MENCAP (Society for Mentally Handicapped Children and Adults).  Winton established in Maidenhead an Abbeyfield House for the elderly and served on the national committee for Abbeyfield.  In 1983, Winton was honored with the title Member of the British Empire (MBE) by the Queen of England for his services to the community. In 1999, Winton was honored with the designation of Freedom of the City of Windsor and Maidenhead for his continuing contribution to his community. 

In May 1991, Winton was invited to Prague where he met Vaclav Havel, the President of the Czech Republic, and Alexander Dubcek, as well as many Kinder. There he was awarded the Freedom of the City of Prague. He has since received letters from around the world from children he had saved and has traveled to Israel, the USA and other countries to meet his Kinder. In September 1994, Israeli President Ezer Weizman sent a letter of thanks and recognition to Winton.

In 1998, Mr Winton was awarded the Order of Masaryk at the Hradany Castle in Prague from Vaclav Havel.  In October 21, 1999, a Czeck film, All My Loved Ones, inspired by Winton’s story, premiered in the Czech Republic. The director, Matej Minac, has since made The Power of Good, a documentary about Mr. Winton.  At the age of 90, Winton is still active with numerous social involvements. On a daily basis, Winton maintains an expansive garden (flower and vegetable) and in his free time he continues to stitch beautiful embroidery.

Anita H. Grosz
November 1999


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