“If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it.” Nicholas Winton
In December 1938 twenty-nine year old British stockbroker Nicholas Winton was planning a holiday skiing trip to Switzerland when he received a phone call from friend Martin Blake who was working with the British Committee for Refugees in Czechoslovakia (BCRC). Instead of Switzerland Nicholas travelled to Prague. [In January 1993 Czechoslovakia in a peaceful dissolution would be split into the two sovereign states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.]
What was the political climate in Europe in the 1930s? Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. In violation of the WWI Versailles Treaty Germany began rebuilding its military. In violation of the Treaty of Versailles Germany reoccupied the Rhineland in March 1936. In violation of the Treaty of Versailles Germany absorbed Austria in March 1938. In September 1938 England and France (without consulting the government of Czechoslovakia) and as part of the Munich Pact allowed Hitler to occupy the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia which had been incorporated into the country as part of the Treaty of Versailles.
It was at this time in history that Nicholas Winton would arrive in Prague on New Year’s Eve 1938. He would check into the Grand Hotel Šroubek (later renamed the Grand Hotel Europa) on Wenceslas Square. A hotel restaurant table would become his office as he met with families and helped plan for Czech refugee children to be taken to England for the duration of the soon expected outbreak of war in Europe.
[Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. With the invasion of Poland in September 1939 England and France declared war on Germany.]
In addition to working with the BCRC in Prague Nicholas would provide logistical support for two Kindertransport (children’s transport) flights sponsored by the Barbican Mission on January 12, 1939, which brought 20 children to England and a Sweden Red Cross flight that transported 30 children to Sweden on January 16 or 17, 1939.
Having exhausted his vacation time Nicholas returned to England and his stockbroker job on January 21, 1939. But his work to rescue the children continued.
Nicholas’ job was not insurmountable, but he put into practice his motto, “If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it.” He needed to raise money for the transportation of the children. He needed permission of the Immigration Section of the British Home Office to bring them into the country and was required to provide guarantor monies for them. The Netherlands had closed its borders in November 1938 after Kristallnacht. He negotiated with the government of The Netherlands to allow the train to pass through the country. And he needed to find foster families, hostels, or other organizations to care for the children.
In Prague Nicholas’ colleagues working with the BCRC were hurriedly gathering documents, photographs, adding names of children to the list of refugees, and dealing with the Nazis’ requirements to allow trains of mostly Jewish children to leave Czechoslovakia.
Kindertransport trains would leave Prague, travel through Germany, pass through The Netherlands to the Hook of Holland, children would sail by ferry to England, and arrive by train at the Liverpool Street Station in London. The foster families would be waiting at the station to meet their new family member.
The first Kindertransport train left Prague on March 14, 1939. Seven Kindertransports were to follow. The ninth train with 250 children was scheduled to leave in September 1939. After Poland was attacked by Germany on September 1, 1939, the Germans cancelled the ninth train. According to Nicholas’ daughter, Barbara, who wrote the book If it’s Not Impossible… about her father’s life, no further information about the children scheduled to leave on the ninth train was found and that many of them most likely died at Auschwitz Concentration Camp.
The Czech Kindertransport rescue lasted nine months.
With the start of WWII and the Kindertransports ending, Nicholas Winton joined the British war effort as an ambulance driver and then became a member of the Royal Air Force until the end of the war.
After the war ended, Nicholas Winton would work for the London-based International Committee for Refugees which would be integrated into the International Refugee Organization of the newly formed United Nations. In 1948 he accepted a job with the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Paris, France. It was in Paris that he met a Danish girl, Grete Gjelstrup. They were married in October 1948.
Grete did not know about the Czech Kindertransport until she found a scrapbook in their attic in Maidenhead, England, in the late 1980s. The scrapbook she found would make the story public.
Nicholas Winton and the group of rescuers working together on the Czech Kindertransport over the nine months of its existence saved the lives of 669 children.
The Scrapbook. At the end of the Kindertransport operation in 1939, a volunteer in the organization, Mr. W. M. Loewinsohn, presented a scrapbook to Winton that included correspondence, data, photos, and other information gathered during the BCRC effort to rescue the children. At the back of the scrapbook was a list of the rescued children and the names and addresses of the families who agreed to foster them.
In 1988 Nicholas was invited to be a member of the audience in a BBC television program called That’s Life! The host of the show, Esther Rantzen, would tell the story of the 1939 Czech Kindertransport and show the scrapbook to the audience. At a point in the show the host spoke of a rescued child, now an adult, named Vera (Diamant) Gissing. Unbeknownst to Nicholas, Vera was sitting next to him. Vera gave him an embrace and said “thank you, thank you.”
In a follow-on episode of That’s Life! the next week, the host asked if there was anyone in the audience who owed their life to Nicholas Winton. Almost five rows of “Nicky’s children” stood up.
The “children” contacted by the BBC did not know how they were saved or who had saved them until then.
On March 11, 2003, Nicholas Winton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II of England.
A documentary Nicky’s Family was released in 2011. It was narrated by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation journalist, foreign correspondent, and author Joe Schlesinger. Joe was one of “Nicky’s children.”
Sir Nicholas Winton died in his sleep on July 1, 2015. He was 106 years old.
A Prague Post article on July 4, 2015, stated, “The first candles on the platform from which trains with Czechoslovak children of Jewish origin were leaving appeared a few hours after Winton’s death was announced.”