Nicholas Winton, the man who saved a generation of Jews

An interview from 2003 with the reluctant British hero who rescued children from the Nazis, and who has died aged 106

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This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine in January 2003

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At 93, Nicholas Winton is keen to get on with his life. He has lunches to go to, people to see. The garden, he grumbles, could do with his attention. But for now, his life is not his own. Every day brings new requests for media interviews or private meetings with people Winton hasn’t seen for decades. He has already been dragged away from his raised beds to meet Bill Clinton and Vaclav Havel. He’s  just been named in the New Year’s Honours List. Now they¹ve made a film about him. And all because he let slip a few facts about a holiday project 64 years ago.

“You’ve only got to mention one little thing, and you wish you¹d never opened your damn mouth.” says Winton, whose best curmudgeonly manner is defeated by innate good humour and a roaring intelligence. The “little thing” he wishes he’d kept to himself is the fact that on the eve of the Second World War, between March and August 1939, Winton organised the transport of 669 Czecholsovakian children out of Prague and brought them to safety in England. Hailed, perhaps inevitably, as “the British Schindler”, Winton testily rejects the title and the tributes that go with it.

“It was a very small part of my life,” he stresses. “A very small part indeed. I didn’t even give up my job to do  it. It was just something I did in my spare time.”

In December 1939, Winton, then a 29 year old stockbroker, was looking forward to a skiing break in Switzerland with his friend Martin Blake. Three days before they were due to leave, Blake a passionately “political” (which in those days meant Left Wing) schoolmaster, rang Winton and asked if he would mind changing his travel plans and going to Prague, where “the most interesting assignment” awaited them. 

Prague at that time, recalls Winton, was swarming with Gestapo and aid committees. “There were Jewish committees, artists’ committees, writers’ committees, refugees’ committees, committees for individuals named on Hitler’s blacklist,” says Winton, “and all these separate committees were doing their best to get their particular group of endangered people out of the country before the Nazi occupation. But the people in the commission dealing with elderly and vulnerable people in the various refugee camps I visited kept telling me that nobody was doing anything for the children. So that is what I did.”

Setting up office in an hotel in Wenceslas Square, Winton, who modestly admits to “a small gift for administration”, collated information from all the committees and drew up a list of the children considered to be most at risk. He then returned to London with hundreds of photos and documents and obtained entry visas from the British Home office, on the strict proviso that every child had a foster family to go to and a financial sponsor who would be good for the £50 required to repatriate the children when the emergency was over. 

The first train-load of primarily Jewish children left Prague the day before the Nazi occupying forces moved in. The last and ninth train, with 251 children ready to travel, was scheduled to leave on 1st September, 1939. War broke out, the train was cancelled, and none of those children, as far as is known, survived.

Once his”assignment” was completed, Winton kept no further contact with any of the children he rescued. His subsequent war career, first driving a Red Cross ambulance and then joining the RAF was no less distinguished, and after the war was over, he worked with the UN, the International Bank and the IRO.

He married Grete, a Danish girl, who he later learned had been imprisoned in Copenhagen for harbouring refugees on the run from the Nazis. But even Grete knew nothing of her husband¹s pre-war activities until 1988, when clearing out the attic of their Maidenhead home, she found a scrapbook containing Kindertransport documents and photos of the children her husband had saved.

At Grete’s insistence, Winton handed his records over to Elizabeth Maxwell, widow of the media magnate Robert Maxwell and patron of several Jewish charities. Eighty of the children were traced and invited onto Esther Rantzen’s That’s Life for a surprise reunion with the man who gave them their freedom. As he recalls the event, a spasm of emotion crosses Winton¹s face. If you didn’t know better, it could easily be taken for horror.

Now the full story of “Winton’s Children” has been told in a documentary by the Slovakian director Matej Minac. The Power of Good will be shown on 27 January to mark International Holocaust Day. Winton, however, has come out strongly against the celebrating of Holocaust Day.

“You can’t use the word ‘holocaust’ any more because stop anyone in the street and say ‘holocaust’ and they will say ‘Hitler’. But this is a misappropriation of language. How can you pinpoint that one atrocity and forget about what happened in Russia or Cambodia or South Africa? That’s why I’m against Holocaust Day. I think it’s wrong.” 

It is precisely this clear sighted regard for what is right and just that motivated Winton, all those years ago, to “get up and do something”. It is all very well, he points out, indulging in endless post facto discussions about what one should or should not do to combat evil (indeed it must seem to him that the whole of post war history is based on precisely this luxurious activity). “The point is,” says Winton, “that there are in this world people who ‘do’ and people who ‘don’t’. I’ve always enjoyed doing work that intrudes, or helps people. Ever since I was quite young I was in St Johns Ambulance or the Red Cross; latterly I’ve been involved in voluntary work with the mentally handicapped and Abbeyfield Old People’s Homes. I don’t know why I get involved in these things. All I know,” he goes on with a marked stiffening of the backbone, “is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with religion.”

It is a tender point. Winton was born in Hampstead, North London, to a wealthy German-Jewish family who changed their name from Wertheim. He attended Stowe public school and was baptised into the Christian faith. From adolescence, however, he has practiced a muscular agnosticism and was not best pleased when a book about his Prague Operations, Nicholas Winton and the Rescued Generation, hinted at a complicated relationship with his Jewish roots. He has also drawn criticism from some quarters because some of the Jewish children he rescued were placed in Christian homes in Britain.

“This business of religion has been so exaggerated now” he says, and he suddenly sounds really tired of talking about it. “I was there [in Prague] to bring out children. It must have been obvious to me at the time that the majority would be Jewish, because those were the ones in greatest danger. But I didn’t treat them as Jews or Christians or anything else. And if somebody wanted to take a child in, I didn’t try to match them by religion. I matched them by the size of the child and the sex the foster family wanted. This whole issue of Jewishness may have been at the back of mind, but it certainly didn’t figure in my work.”

It is hard to imagine a man less eager to be lionised. Indeed Winton becomes quite exercised in defence of his ordinariness.

“Everyone thinks my story should be marked by heroism, but there was no risk to myself,” he insists. “You see, no-one in Prague at that time thought they were going to be at war with England. Yes, I was followed by the Gestapo –you get to know who is following you pretty quickly in a small town – but because I could speak German, I could more or less go up to them and say ‘I know what you want from me and you¹re not going to get it. So Bugger Off.’ And they sort of  did.”

You can see why they might. Even at 93, Winton has the kind of authority that has nothing to do with officer class swagger and everything to do with moral certainty.

Now widowed, he lives alone in the immaculate Danish-style house he built for Grete, but enjoys a close relationship with his own children and the countless men and women, now in their 70s with grandchildren of their own, who turn up almost daily on his doorstep to offer thanks for their freedom. “It’s marvellous that I’ve got all these people who come and look after me,” he says, “but I must admit I find all the fuss a little bewildering. I can see why the past is so important to survivors of something like this, but as far as I am concerned it all happened a lifetime ago.”

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He’s right. It happened many lifetimes ago. 669 lifetimes, to be precise. For the first time in our interview, Winton looks properly gratified. He likes things to be precise.