A One-Man Kindertransport
09/27/02
Staff Writer
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After you've visited Prague on the eve of World War II and seen hundreds of Jewish children in decrepit refugee camps and decided you want to help them and returned to London, and lobbied with the British government to allow them into the country and found foster homes for them, and convinced parents back in Czechoslovakia to let their children leave and brought nearly 700 youngsters to safety, what do you tell your family about the experience? If you're Nicholas Winton, you don't tell them anything. Winton, a retired stockbroker, is a forgotten hero of the Holocaust. For five decades, no one (not his wife, not his children, not his best friends) knew what he had done for several months in 1938-39. Then his wife, rummaging through the family's attic in London in 1988, discovered a dusty scrapbook full of handwritten letters and black-and-white photographs of children and a list of names. It was the record, put together by Winton's secretary, of his life-saving activities. Winton finally told his wife, Greta, the story, which went public at a Holocaust conference organized by the wife of industrialist Robert Maxwell. This was followed by a BBC television show, a book by one of the rescued kids, awards in England and Czechoslovakia, a feature film from Prague and a documentary about Winton's life that had its New York premiere last week at Symphony Space in Manhattan. A capacity crowd of 760 (a little more than the 669 children saved by Winton) attended the opening of "The Power of Good." Winton, now 93, was in the audience. So were diplomats from a half-dozen countries. So were nine of the "Winton Children," now senior citizens, who rose with everyone for a standing ovation when their white-haired savior walked onto the stage. "There is nothing that can't be done if it's fundamentally reasonable," Winton declared. The documentary, which will open here soon for general release, showed what he did: Winton essentially created his own Kindertransport, independent of the larger rescue effort under the auspices of the British Jewish Refugee Committee. In Prague, at 29, on vacation in December 1938, he and a British friend visited camps established near the capital for Jews who fled the Sudetenland after that part of Czechoslovakia near the German border was occupied by Nazi troops. Convinced that war was imminent, Winton was struck particularly by the children's plight. He set up headquarters for a couple of months in his Prague hotel lobby, interviewing hundreds of refugee parents, offering to find foster homes in the United Kingdom for their children until conditions in mainland Europe became safer. Back in London, Winton raised thousands of dollars for the children's transportation and visas and other expenses, and he persuaded the government to admit the youngsters and British families to take them into their homes. He had fake visas printed when the official documents were not issued quickly enough. Winton arranged six transports by train from Prague through Holland, and then by steamship to England. Winton greeted the kids at the London train station. All this was reasonable? "Well, wasn't it?" he answers, sitting in a Midtown hotel room the morning after the premiere, across from Joe Schlesinger, a semi-retired Canadian television reporter who was on one of the Winton transports and narrated "The Power of Good." "I enjoyed doing it," Winton says. "I like helping people." His health is fine, he says. Thick-lensed glasses are his only concession to age. Winton has a hearing aid but doesn't use it. "It wouldn't do any good," he says. He admits to being stubborn, "but I'm stubborn in a nice way." Winton joined the British air force during the war and married afterward. He didn't tell anyone what he had done in 1938-39 because "it wasn't part of my life anymore." The obvious question: why did he launch the one-man rescue effort? Like most non-Jews honored for saving Jews during the Holocaust (Winton was born to German Jews who immigrated to England a century ago and converted to Christianity and had their son baptized in the Church of England) he finds the questions puzzling if not annoying. "It was fairly obvious," he says with a shrug, "that these people were in a fairly dangerous situation." "We've asked him this question 500 times," says Matej Minac, director of "The Power of Good," which features rare historical footage as well as praise for Winton by Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel and Yad Vashem historian Yehuda Bauer. Minac gets the same dismissive answer. Winton says, "I tried to do good and I get asked this silly question 500 times." "He's a philanthropist. He had compassion," Minac says. "It was an adventure. It was a challenge." And, Minac says, "he was a very good businessman." Winton put together albums with flattering photographs of the children (most were between 6 and 10 years old) and their artworks and brief descriptions, to be shown to prospective foster parents. He, in Winton's own words, sold the children: at least their need to be rescued. Ninety percent of the people Winton saved were Jewish. "I didn't bring out Jews," he says. "I brought out children." The Germans in 1939, three years before the formal start of the Final Solution, were willing to send the young Jews away from Prague, he says. "There was no threat at all" to his safety there, Winton says, before the Nazi army occupied the city. "The only Germans in Prague were the spies": Nazi spies. Winton, a retired stockbroker, deals in understatements. "He was in terrible danger," says Minac. German spies were known to kidnap and torture people at odds with the Third Reich. "The Gestapo was following him," Minac adds. Back in London, Winton recruited "a secretary and a few volunteers." He came home from his stockbroker's job at 4 p.m. and did his humanitarian work until 11 p.m. or midnight each day: "as long as my secretary could stand it." "I led a fairly normal life," Winton says: badgering the British Home Office to admit the endangered children immediately (The bureaucrats "considered him crazy," Minac says) and raising funds in newspaper appeals, in pitches to charitable groups, religious organizations and friends ("There wasn't much money involved," Winton maintains.) He kept working until Sept. 1, 1939, the day World War II opened and the borders closed. His seventh and largest group of children, 251, was waiting at the Prague train station that day. The train never left; as far as Winton knows, all 251 perished in the Shoah. Winton's track record: The children who left Czechoslovakia under his care lived; those who didn't died, some 15,000 Czech Jewish children. Most of the kids on his transports were the sole survivors of their families. Winton lost track of the children after the foster parents claimed them at the London train station. "As far as I knew, they left the country" after the war, he says. He went on to volunteer for the Red Cross and establish a group of homes for the elderly. Then his scrapbook turned up. He was going to throw it away. "It wasn't a story," Winton says. But Elizabeth Maxwell and the BBC and Minac were intrigued. Since 1988 he has been reunited with the rescued children (and their families) who have settled over the years in Israel, Canada, the United States, back in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and in other lands. "They call me Nicky. Some call me grandpa," he says. Minac is still trying to reach the children who went to Latin America after the war and probably haven't heard about Winton. (To contact Minac: mminac@yahoo.com.) Most of the rescued children did not know of Winton's existence until the BBC program made his story public. "I knew there was some sort of organization" behind the rescue effort, says Schlesinger, the Toronto journalist who found a haven with uncles in England during the war. "I was shocked. I thought it was a Jewish group, HIAS," says Olga Grilli, who arrived in London the month before the war started. Grilli, who now lives in Poughkeepsie and came to last week's premiere, has had several reunions with Winton in the past 14 years. "We spent a long time talking," she says. "I wanted to know how it happened. I had to pry it out of him: he's an extremely modest man." "Had there been more like him, more Jews would have survived the war," says Steve Schwager, executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which presented its Maasim Tovim Award to Winton at Symphony Space. Winton received a silver yad, a Torah pointer, from Congregation Mount Sinai in Brooklyn Heights when he attended Yom Kippur services last week at the invitation of Rabbi Joseph Potasnik. Winton spoke for a few minutes before yizkor, describing what he had done 63 years ago. "He said, 'One cannot stand back and remain passive,' " Rabbi Potasnik related. "People were sitting there completely enthralled. There were tears. People hugged him." Winton, already named to the Order of the British Empire, was to be honored this week by Prime Minister Tony Blair. "I feel very embarrassed" by the attention, Winton says. Even after his story became known, he never took his children aside to tell them the details. They found out from the films and newspaper articles. But Grilli says she told her children after she discovered what Winton did for her and other young Jews in Czechoslovakia. "They know a great deal," she says. "I tell them if it wouldn't be for him, none of us would be here."

Last Update:

10/27/2009 - 11:19

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