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The 669 children of Sir Nicholas Winton

In 1938 a young stockbroker from London planned to spend his 2-week vacation skiing on the Alps. He went to Prague instead, and devoted the next months to saving the lives of 669 children.
Wintons children
On 28 October 2014, at the age of 105, in an interview to the BBC, Winton said he thought he had "made a difference to a lot of people" and went on to say, "I don't think we've learned anything... the world today is in a more dangerous situation than it has ever been." His story, discovered 40 years later, was the subject of documentaries and movies, among them "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport", which received the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in the year 2000. The video is a BBC documentary on the extraordinary life of a silent, shy hero of our times. The interviewer is Bob Simon, the other characters speaking are Sir Nicholas Winton (aged 105), Dr David Silberklang, and two of the "children" he saved, Hugo Meisl and Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines.
    Language Notes and Explanations
  • infamous= wicked; abominable.
  • dire straits = desperate situations, a metaphor from "difficult sea passages"
  • to sense = to have a feeling that something is coming
  • to bear witness = to testify, to provide evidence for something
  • stockbroker = operatore di borsa
  • to be displaced = to be forced to leave their home, because of war, persecution, or natural disaster.
  • to set up shop = establish a business
  • stationery = writing materials, as pens, pencils, paper, and envelopes. The etymology is from "articles sold by a stationer", that is a seller with a fixed location, often a bookshop licensed by universities.
  • eventually = in the end (and not "eventualmente")
  • ingenuity = inventiveness, creativity, imagination
  • to wrestle = to fight
  • to issue = to release a document
  • blackmail = extortion (=ricattare). Etymology: The word is derived from the tribute paid by English and Scottish border dwellers to Border Raiders in return for immunity from raids; the tribute was paid in goods or labour, in Latin "reditus nigri", that is black + mail (tribute), being white mail a payment in silver.
  • forgery = copy or imitation of a document, signature, banknote, work of art
  • to cleanse = to get rid of something unpleasant
  • to slaughter = the killing of cattle, sheep, etc., especially for food; referred to humans, the brutal or violent killing of a person (slaughterhouse= mattatoio)
  • on behalf of = in the name of
  • to be knighted = to receive a knighthood (or a damehood, its female equivalent), one of the highest honours an individual in the United Kingdom can achieve; the title of "Sir" or "Dame" will precede the name of the individual.
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[0:00] Now an extraordinary story from the Second World War, a humanitarian story that didn't come to light for decades. It concerned a young Londoner named Nicholas Winton who went to Prague and ended up saving the lives of 669 children, mostly Jews, from almost certain death.

[0:19] His story begins at the end of 1938, with Europe on the brink of war. In Germany, violence against Jews was escalating, and the infamous Munich Agreement paved the way for Hitler's armies to march unopposed into Czechoslovakia.

[0:34] In London Nicholas Winton had been following events and knew that refugees fleeing the Nazis were in dire straits. He went to Czechoslovakia to see if there was anything he could do to help. What's strange is that for almost 50 years he hardly told anyone about what he had accomplished, and for 50 years the children knew nothing about who had saved them or how.

[1:10] We begin on October 1st, 1938. Nazi troops march into the Sudetenland, the German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia. Prague, the Czech capital, was flooded with desperate people trying to escape.

[1:24] A fortunate few were able to send their children abroad; these parents, mostly Czech Jews, sensed war was coming and wanted to get their children out. By chance, a cameraman filmed a man holding a boy, a 29-year-old Londoner, his name: Nicholas Winton.
"All I knew was that the people that I met couldn't get out and were looking for ways of at least getting their children out."

[1:56] Nicholas Winton is one of the few people who can bear witness to those days, because he is 104 years old. He told us he went to Prague to see if he might be able to save some people.
Bob Simon: "But what made you think you could do it?"
"Well... when I'm I work on the motto that if something is not impossible, there must be a way of doing it."

[2:20] Back in London, Winton was a successful stockbroker living the "good life", with a passion for sports. But he was deeply concerned about news reports in Czechoslovakia, of German persecution.
"I went out into the camps where the people who had been displaced were put, and it was winter, and it was cold..."

[2:40] Emigration wasn't an option, the world's doors were closed to the refugees, conditions in the camps were brutal for the 150,000 (hundred and fifty thousand) people trapped there, especially for the children. And no one focused on them, until Nicholas Winton. But what did he do? We went to Jerusalem to Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, and asked Dr David Silberklang, a senior historian there.

[3:10] "And Winton went, set up shop in a hotel in the centre of the old city in Prague and began looking into 'how can I organize getting some of the refugees, particularly the children out of here?'"
"What kind of experience did he have to qualify him for this immense bureaucratic task..."
"None."

[3:30] Winton set up a small organization with one aim: to get as many kids out, as fast as possible. People started coming to him in increasing numbers. He didn't have time in the day to meet them all. He worked till two in the morning, got up early in the morning to meet the next people, as more and more coming saying 'take my child out, take my child'!"

[3:49] By the time he returned to London he had a list of hundreds of children and set out to convince British authorities to take him seriously. He did it by taking stationery from an established refugee organization heading "Children's Section" and making himself "chairman".

[4:09] "So that eventually they had to adopt me."
"So, in fact you managed to do what you did through a little deception, a little smoke in mirrors..."
"Yes, to a certain extent yes"
"It required quite a bit of ingenuity..."
"No, it just required a printing press to get the notepaper printed."

[4:30] The Children's Section operated from a tiny office in central London. Winton's mother was in charge, the staff were all volunteers. During the day, Winton worked as a stockbroker; evenings, he wrestled with the British bureaucracy.

[4:51] "Did you approach any other countries to take some of the children? "
"Yea, Americans. But the Americans wouldn't take any, which was a pity, we could have got a lot more out."

[5:03] Winton had written president Roosevelt asking the US to take in more children. A minor official at the US Embassy in London wrote back: "the U.S. was unable to help". Britain agreed to accept the children, but only if Winton found families willing to take them in.

[5:21] So he circulated the children's pictures to advertise them, but even after a family chose a child, British authorities were slow issuing travel documents. So Winton started having them forged; he also spread some money around.
"Took a little bit of blackmail on my part.... "

[5:40] You were indulging in blackmail and forgery to get the children out." "I have never heard it put like that before..."
"But you seem to be enjoying it"
"It worked, that's the main thing."

[5:53] The first twenty children left Prague on March 14, 1939. The next day German troops occupied Prague and the rest of Czechoslovakia. Hitler rode through the streets triumphant. Hugo Meisl was 10 years old.

[6:09] "Do you remember the Germans coming into Czechoslovakia?"
"Not only do I remember, I personally saw Hitler standing up in the car and the children were expected to say 'heil Hitler' and so forth, I remember as if yesterday."

[6:27] It wasn't long before violence against Jews, property confiscation and forced labour that began in the Sudetenland spread throughout Czechoslovakia; but the Nazis allowed Winton's trains to leave in keeping with their policy to cleanse Europe of Jews.

[6:45] Hugo Meisl's parents decided it was time to put him and his brother on one of the trains.
"I remember that they told us that we were going to England, maybe two or three months, it would be a holiday for us, and that they would join us very shortly afterwards..."
"And you believed them?"
"Absolutely!"

[7:05] "Were your parents emotional when they said goodbye to you?
"No, I've asked myself that question many times, how my parents had the strength... I'm sorry! It never occurred to me that what they were saying to us was not true, in other words, that they realized that they would not be joining us within a short period of time."

[7:40] Over the spring and summer of 1939 seven trains carried over 600 children through the heart of Nazi Germany to Holland, where they took a ferry to the English coast. From there they caught a train to London; an 8th train, carrying 250 more, was scheduled to leave Prague on September 1st - but that's the day the war began.

[7:54] "They were all at the station..... even on the train, waiting to go and war was declared; so the train never left, never heard really what happened to all those children... "
"But there is reason to suspect that not many of them survived..."
"I think that's true. Yes"

[8:30] Two years after that last train the Nazis began implementing the "Final Solution", their plan to slaughter all the Jews of Europe. Czech Jews were rounded up and shipped to Theresienstadt, an old military garrison town about an hour north of Prague, their first stop on the road to annihilation. These tracks were the exit from Theresienstadt, the only exit. The tracks led East, the trains were called "Polish transports", destination: Auschwitz.

[9:05] Some 90,000 (ninety thousand) people took that one-way ride, among them almost all the children Sir Nicholas wasn't able to get out in time, their parents, and the parents of the children already in England.
"After the war you went back to Czechoslovakia. Was there one instant where you accepted the fact that your parents were dead?"

[9:20] "For three years we used to visit when trains came from Siberia especially when the Communists moved in, in 1948, a lot of people started coming back from Siberia, so I would go to the station, hoping. and when films were being shown of people walking in concentration camps, Auschwitz and so forth, there's so many shots being taken by the Germans and so forth... never stopped looking.

[10:20] The name of every Czech Jew murdered in the Holocaust is painted on the walls of Prague's Pinkas synagogue, over 77,300 names, including Arnoshtka and Pavel Meisl, Hugo's parents' names.

[10:42] And Nicholas Winton? During the war, he volunteered for an ambulance unit for the Red Cross, then trained pilots for the Royal Air Force. He got married, raised a family, earned a comfortable living. For fifty years he told hardly anyone what he had done.

[11:00] "A question which I know intrigues everyone who hears your story, is why did you keep it secret for so long?"
"I didn't really keep it secret, I just didn't talk about it..."

[11:16] "All this time you're in England, then you go back to Czechoslovakia, then you go to Israel, you still had no idea how your departure from Czechoslovakia had been organized?"
"Absolutely no idea"
"And you learn that by seeing it on television..."
"That's right!"

[11:35] In 1988 the BBC learned about Winton's story, and invited him to be part of a program. He had no idea that the people sitting around him were people he had saved.
"Can I ask... Is there anyone in our audience tonight who owes their life to Nicholas Winton? If so, could you stand up, please? Mr Winton, would you like to turn around? On behalf of all of them, thank you very much indeed!"

[12:22] "I suppose it was the most emotional moment in my life, suddenly being confronted with all these children, who weren't by any means children any more..."
"No they weren't, and for the first time they looked at you, and knew that you were the reason that they were alive"
"Yeah.... true..."

[12:45] "I wore this around my neck and this is the actual pass that we were given to come to England, and I'm another of the children that you saved..."
"Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines describes Winton as one of the most modest people she's ever met."

[13:04] "Why do you think he didn't say anything for fifty years?"
"I think it was in his nature, he really felt that he had done all he could and having got those children settled, he felt 'been there, done that, my job's done, I have other things to do'."

[13:20] Other things... For the last fifty years Winton has been helping mentally handicapped people and building homes for the elderly.
"We've just opened our second old people's home and it's full, and it's doing very well, and plenty of old people like me to go in..."
"But you're not there, you're at home..."
"Oh, I'd hate to go into one of my own homes... don't print that!"

[13:50] Sir Nicholas Winton!
In 2003 Winton was knighted and became Sir Nicholas Winton. In the Czech Republic he's become a national hero. He was celebrated in a documentary called "Nicky's family" but he isn't really comfortable with all the adulation.
"I'm not interested in the past. I think there is too much emphasis nowadays on the past, on what has happened, and nobody is concentrated on the present and the future".

[14:25] In 1939 Nicholas went and used a two-week vacation to go to Prague and ended up saving the lives of 669 children. In the decades since, of course, the children had children, who then had children and so on... and the numbers multiplied...
"If you want to summarize it in one sentence: 'guy takes a two week vacation'
"and ends up with 15,000 children... Yes, yes"

[14:55] A pretty good story...
"It's a great story"
"They've got children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren...
"and none of them would be here if it hadn't been for Sir Nick...
"That's right, yeah, terrible responsibility isn't it?"