1909: U.K. Stockbroker Who Would Save 669 Children Is Born

Nicholas Winton was invited to the audience of a live show on rescue in 1988. What he didn’t know: Most others there were people he had saved.

David Green
David B. Green
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Sir Nicholas Winton at the opening of a 2011 film about him.Credit: AP
David Green
David B. Green

May 19, 1909, is the birthdate of Nicholas Winton, the British son of converted Jews, who at the age of 29 became determined to rescue from occupied Czechoslovakia as many children as possible, and find them homes in the United Kingdom.

Winton, a stockbroker, was a perhaps unlikely candidate for the role of humanitarian, and seemed to go out of his way to avoid recognition for his efforts until very late in life. But the fact is that he saved the lives of 669 children, most of them Jews, and it seems to have come naturally to him.

Journey to Prague

Nicholas George Wertheim was born in Hampstead, London, tomerchant banker Rudolph Wertheim and the former Barbara Wertheimer. Both were German-born Jews who had immigrated two years earlier to Britain, joined the Church of England, and changed their family name to “Winton.”

Nicholas did not complete secondary school. Instead, he began learning on the job about international finance, working successively at banks in England, Germany and France, before returning to the U.K in 1931 to take up work as a stockbroker.

He also was an accomplished fencer whose hopes of competing in the Olympics were dashed by the war.

At Christmas of 1938, Winton was planning to join his friend Martin Blake, a teacher, who was supposed to accompany a group of students on a skiing trip in Switzerland. But Blake called just before Winton’s departure to tell him he was in Prague instead, where he urged Nicky to join him. Without knowing much more than that, Winton flew to Czechoslovakia.

The Germans had occupied the Sudetenland that fall and Prague was filling up with refugees, many of them Jewish, from there and Germany and Austria, seeking visas to countries that might provide safety, if only for their children. (The Germans occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939.) The UK, in the wake of Kristallnacht, a month earlier, had passed legislation permitting the entry of children under 17, on condition they had a place to live and could put up a bond guaranteeing their eventual departure.

Nicholas Winton with a rescued child in a still from the 2011 documentary "Nicky's Family." (Menemsha Films)Credit: "Nicky's Family." (Menemsha Films)

That's life, thanks to Nicholas Winton

Winton threw himself into the work of getting children from Czechoslovakia to England. He extended his stay in Prague from to three weeks, and once he returned home, he spent his evenings placing ads seeking foster families for children, and dealing with other bureaucratic and financial hurdles, enlisting help wherever he could find it.

By the time World War II started, on September 1, 1939, eight of nine trainloads he had organized had made their way from Prague to London’s Liverpool Station. A final group of 250 children were stuck in Prague, nearly all of whom died in the Holocaust.

After initial service in the war as a Red Cross ambulance driver, Winton joined the Royal Air Force. Following the war, he participated for several years in relief and reconstruction efforts, before returning to the business world.

In 1948, he married Grete Gjelstrujp, a Danish woman with whom he had three children. He ran for Maidenhead town council – and lost – and in 1983 he was awarded an MBE by the queen for his volunteer work establishing a group of sheltered-living homes for the elderly.

Winton didn’t talk much about the rescue of the Jewish children, but he was curious about the fates of the children he’d help rescue. In the mid-1980s, his wife found a scrapbook in the attic with lists of all the children’s names, and showed it way to Elisabeth Maxwell, a Holocaust scholar (and the wife of media tycoon Robert Maxwell). From there, it made its way into the hands of Esther Rantzen, who hosted a BBC-TV show called “That’s Life!”

Sir Nicholas Winton - BBC Programme "That's Life" aired in 1988Credit: YouTube

In February 1988, Winton was invited to be in the studio audience of a live broadcast of the show devoted to the subject of rescue. What he didn’t know was that most of the others in the audience were people he had saved five decades earlier. When Rantzen revealed that fact, and introduced Winton to viewers, he was shaken. In the succeeding years, many honors followed, and the bashful man was forced to get used to the attention.

Nicholas Winton died on July 1, 2015, at the age of 106.

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