The ‘British Schindler’ who saved 669 children from the Nazis

Nicholas Winton always claimed he “wasn’t heroic” yet it was down to this British Schindler's business sense and compassion that 669 children were swept out of Prague to safety before the Nazis arrived, writes Gavin Mortimer for BBC History Revealed

Sir Nicholas Winton

One of the most popular television programmes of the 1980s was BBC magazine show That’s Life. It regularly pulled in more than 20 million viewers each week, but few episodes were as powerful as the one broadcast on 27 February 1988.

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Near the end of the show, host Esther Rantzen produced a scrapbook that listed the names of hundreds of mostly Jewish children brought to Britain from Czechoslovakia in 1939, from under the noses of the Nazis. One of the names was Vera Diamant, a ten-year-old whose parents had arranged for her and an older sister to start a new life in Britain.

Vera was in the studio audience, and as the camera picked her out, viewers saw an old man next to her. Neither he nor Vera knew they had been ‘set up’ by That’s Life. Amid gasps from the audience, Rantzen announced that the old man was called Nicholas Winton, and that 49 years earlier he had been instrumental in saving the life of Vera and hundreds of other children. The two embraced and as Winton wiped a tear from his eye, Vera leaned in and whispered “thank you”.

On the face of it, Winton was an unlikely saviour of Czech children. Born into privilege in north London in 1909 and privately educated, by the late 1930s he had become a successful stockbroker. But though he was on the surface the quintessential English gentleman, Winton’s lineage was foreign.

The family name was Wertheim, German Jewish, and although Nicholas was raised a Christian it wasn’t until 1938 that he and the rest of the family changed themselves to Winton to underline where their loyalties lay.

A fervent anti-fascist, Winton joined the Labour Party. At the end of December 1938, he accepted an invitation from a fellow activist to travel to Prague to see the plight of Czech Jews firsthand. Arriving in Prague on New Year’s Eve, Winton was introduced to Doreen Warriner. A 34-year-old English academic, she had been in Prague since 13 October, motivated by a sense of shame at the manner in which many felt the British government had betrayed the Czechs. “I had no idea at all what to do, only a desperate wish to do something,” she recalled of her decision to abandon her Rockefeller fellowship in the US to travel to Prague.

A fortnight before Warriner’s arrival, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had signed the Munich Agreement, which allowed Hitler to annexe the Sudetenland – the region of western Czechoslovakia bordering Germany. It precipitated an exodus of more than 100,000 refugees from the Sudetenland into the rest of Czechoslovakia which, for the time being, remained free from Nazi occupation.

Displeased and unappeased

Warriner wasn’t the only Briton disgusted by the Munich Agreement. Many charities and organisations sprang up to assist those Czechs wanting to flee the Nazis. It was to the most prominent of these, the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia (BCRC), that Warriner offered her services when she arrived in Prague. Her focus was on assisting political refugees to find a way to leave Czechoslovakia for Britain, and Winton quickly saw how he could be of assistance.

“Miss Warriner has already asked me to be secretary of a Children’s Committee for Czechoslovakia, which I suggested should be formed,” wrote Winton to his mother in early January 1939. “It will mean a lot of work.”

Some of that work he delegated to his mother, such as enquiring of the Home Office in London what guarantees were needed to bring a child into Britain. In the meantime, Winton began to break down some of the layers of bureaucracy that were hindering the work of the BCRC in Prague. It was a complex challenge but Winton’s motto was “if something is not impossible, then there must be a way to do it”.

Winton’s determination to help the children was strengthened by an incident he witnessed in Prague on 11 January 1939, when he encountered a crowd of belligerent Czech youths marching down the street and shouting animatedly. “I found myself standing next to another inoffensive looking man and I asked him what it had all been about,” he explained in a letter to his mother. “He told me it was an anti- Jewish procession and the shouting was anti-Jewish slogans.”

This wasn’t the only sinister incident that Winton experienced. He had the feeling he was being followed, a hunch confirmed by Warriner, who said she and the rest of the BCRC in Prague were under surveillance by German agents.

On 14 January, Winton escorted a British MP, Eleanor Rathbone, to one of the growing number of camps in Czechoslovakia that now housed an estimated 250,000 refugees. It was a chastening experience for the pair; the sight of so many children living in appalling conditions proved particularly upsetting. That night, Winton wrote to his mother to tell her that “as far as I can see my work re: children is only just starting”.

Three more heroes of the holocaust

Marion Pritchard

Dutch-American Marion Pritchard was a student social worker in Amsterdam in 1942, Pritchard was outraged at the Nazis’ persecution of Jews and began registering Jewish children as her own and placing them in safe houses. She organised food and medical care, and even shot dead a local Nazi collaborator who had broken into her house looking for Jews. “By 1945, I had lied, stolen,  cheated, deceived and even killed,” recalled Pritchard, but in doing so she had saved the lives of more than 150 Jews. She was later honoured as ‘Righteous Among the Nations’, an an honorific granted to non-Jews who risked their lives to protect Jews during the Holocaust.

Jane Haining

When war broke out, Jane Haining was working for the Scottish Mission School in Budapest as the matron of a girls’ boarding house. Called home by the Mission, Haining refused to leave, writing: “If these children need me in days of sunshine, how much more do they need me in days of darkness?” For the next five years, Haining sheltered scores of Jewish refugees who arrived from Nazi Europe. Haining was arrested when the Nazis invaded Hungary in 1944 and was sent to Auschwitz. She didn’t return. She, too, was recognised as Righteous Among the Nations.

Varian Fry

The first American to be honoured as Righteous Among the Nations, Fry was a journalist who, in 1940, helped found the Emergency Rescue Committee, which operated in France. He arrived in Marseille in August 1940 and remained for 13 months, organising the escapes of more than 2,000 dissidents and refugees, many of them Jewish. Deported to the US by Vichy France, Fry was one of the first reporters to draw American attention to the Holocaust in a 1942 article titled ‘The Massacre of the Jews in Europe’ in The New Republic magazine.

However, he continued, he believed he would be more effective if he was based in London, and it would be wonderful if she could lend a hand. “If I can possibly avoid it I don’t want to work anywhere near any of the existing committees,” he told her. “From experience this end they can only retard the work. I therefore need someone practically the whole time I am at work.”

A significant factor in Winton’s decision to return to London was a £4 million fund set up by the British government to assist Sudeten refugees.

With Warriner in Prague, the plight of the children would be best served if Winton was in Britain to organise their dispersal when they arrived. “He is ideal for the job,” Warriner wrote to the BCRC in London. “He has enormous energy, businessmen methods, knows the situation perfectly.”

Winton spent much of February organising with the Home Office the requirements to bring each child from Prague to Britain. These were: a £50 guarantee (equivalent to approximately £3,200 in 2019), a medical certificate and the name of a foster parent.

Full steam ahead

The first train carrying children – one of the so-called ‘Kindertransport’ – left Prague on 14 March with 20 boys and girls on board; the next day Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, and the need to evacuate more children took on a greater urgency. Fortunately, Winton’s role in Prague had been taken over by Trevor Chadwick, a teacher from Swanage in Dorset, who had first come to the Czech capital in early March to collect three children for his school. Chadwick and Warriner now had to deal not with shadowy German agents but strutting Gestapo officers.

“They gave me an unpleasant time at first,” Chadwick recalled. “I remember putting on the screaming table-thumping acts – always reliable with these louts – and demanding an interview with the Kriminalrat.” The Kriminalrat, or section chief, was Karl Bömelburg, a thug who could be easily charmed by the shrewd Chadwick, and he authorised the departure of eight trains in total containing 669 children.

Sir Nicholas Winton with the steam train that brought evacuees to London
Sir Nicholas Winton stands in front of the Tornado steam train that brought evacuees to Liverpool Street station in London (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

In one of them was Vera Diamant and her sister, Eva, whose parents had approached Chadwick for help not long after Germans troops had occupied their hometown of Celákovice. The pair were among 123 children who left on the fifth train to Britain, on 2 June 1939.

“The last time I saw my parents was getting on the train in Prague to go to England,” recalled Diamant. “We were sitting in the train and I saw for the first time the anguish in my parents faces which they were hiding until that very last moment.”

Winton greeted Vera and the other children upon the train’s arrival in London, and among the foster parents and other well-wishers was a reporter from The New Statesman magazine. “I have seldom seen a more moving sight,” wrote the journalist. “Policemen kept a gangway for the crocodile which was led off to a gymnasium… and curtained down the middle. The children sat on benches on one side of the curtain, the parents were on the other. As each name was called out, the child went through an opening in the curtain and was welcomed by its new parents on the other side.”

The train carrying the Diamant sisters was the last one Chadwick waved off from Prague. The Czech capital was no longer safe for British charity workers, and in June he returned to the UK as Warriner had done a few weeks earlier. In July the BCRC was replaced by the Czech Refugee Trust Fund and a government official called Walter Creighton took on Chadwick’s role, his official status affording more protection.

Three more trains left Prague that summer, including one on 1 July that transported 241 children to London, the largest number yet. The ninth was scheduled to depart on 1 September with 250 boys and girls, but it never left Prague. That morning, Germany invaded Poland, setting Europe, and the world, on the path to war.

Silent heroism

Winton, Chadwick and Warriner saved the lives of hundreds of children, but for decades their deeds went unrecognised. When Chadwick and Warriner died in the 1970s, barely a mention was made of their passing. There was a brief notice in The Times when Warriner died in December 1972, with a colleague in the BCRC in Prague describing how: “Doreen was the best possible company in bad times, and it was a rewarding experience to work with someone of such competence and compassion.”

It was the powerful reunion with Vera Diamant on That’s Life that turned the global spotlight on Winton and the work of the BCRC nearly half a century earlier. The scrapbook that was such a mine of information to Esther Rantzen had been presented to Winton by a BCRC volunteer in 1939, as a memento of their enterprise. In the early 1980s it came to the attention of Elizabeth Maxwell, a Holocaust researcher and the wife of the newspaper tycoon, Robert, himself a Czech Jew who had fled the Nazis.

A statue commemorating Nicholas Winton and his efforts to save 669 children stands in Prague's railway station (Photo by Matej Divizna/Getty Images)
A statue commemorating Nicholas Winton and his efforts to save 669 children stands in Prague’s railway station (Photo by Matej Divizna/Getty Images)

Winton, who was knighted in 2003, was always uncomfortable with the fact that the media lauded him as the sole hero of this endeavour. In interviews he consistently highlighted the role of Chadwick and Warriner, explaining in 2014 (the year before he died aged 106) that “I wasn’t heroic because I was never in danger”. He was in danger for a while, but more importantly, Winton had been prepared to act boldly while the majority of the West was indifferent to the plight of Europe’s Jews. “He is the father of the biggest family in the world,” said Vera.

“The 669 children Nicky Winton saved have had children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. That means there are well over 5,000 of us alive today thanks to him and Trevor Chadwick, and the British people who opened their hearts and homes to us.”

Winton’s children

Many of those Winton helped to save have gone on to fame and fortune…

Gerda Mayer

The 11-year-old was the personal responsibility of Trevor Chadwick, whose mother, Muriel, provided the £50 guarantee so she could settle in Britain with the family. Gerda, who lost her parents in the war, was schooled in England and began writing poetry in the 1950s. She has since had many anthologies published and the dedication in her 1988 collection A Heartache of Grass is “to the memory of Muriel Chadwick and her son Trevor to whom I owe my preservation”.

Alf Dubs

The Labour life peer, who arrived from Prague in 1939 aged six, was elected MP for Battersea South in 1979 and served his constituency for eight years. A former director of the Refugee Council, Alf said: “Winton was truly a special human being…he saw the impending tragedy and was determined to save Jewish children from the Nazis.”

Karel Reisz

Considered one of the most influential Czech filmmakers ever, a 12-year-old Karel and his brother were put on a train to London from Prague by their parents, both of whom died at Auschwitz. Karel rejected his mother’s suggestion to Anglicise his name to Charles and his individuality was evident in his filmmaking, the most famous of which was the 1981 hit The French Lieutenant’s Woman starring Meryl Streep.

Gavin Mortimer is a bestselling writer, historian and television consultant. His books include The Long Range Desert Group in World War II (Osprey, 2017)

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This content first appeared in the November 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed