If you live in the United States or Canada, you may have noticed that the latest Google Doodle is celebrating the 111th birthday of Nicholas Winton. If you hadn’t noticed it yet, maybe take a look next time you log on for a game of online pokies. But the first question on your mind might be; who exactly was Nicholas Winton?
The interesting thing about Mr Winton is that he holds as special a place in many hearts as Oscar Schindler. But, given that Winton is often referred to as ‘the English Schindler,’ it really does emphasise how fondly Oscar Schindler is remembered for his place in history, but how often Winton is overlooked for performing very similar acts.
Winton is responsible for saving the lives of over 600 children during the German occupancy of Czechoslovakia. During the build-up to World War II, Winton helped the children escape, effectively saving them the horror of the Nazi regime. But Winton was also an extremely modest man and accepted little credit for the acts up right until his death in July 2015. He was 105 when he died, and continued to work with charity organisations until the very end.
In more detail, it was in December 1938 that Winton was urged to travel to Prague by a friend, Martin Blake. Blake had been actively assisting the many refugees that had fled to Prague after German forces had begun occupying the surrounding territories. The German occupancy had kicked off in earnest in September, after the Munich agreement had been signed.
Those most in need of assistance were Jews, intellectuals, and politicians. The effort to try and save them had initially been organised by Doreen Warriner, a name as often overlooked as that of Winton himself.
During his time in Prague, Winton had witnessed first-hand the outrageous treatment of German and Sudeten refugees who were forced in to confinement in various camps around Prague. The experience spurred him into action, and with encouragement of Warriner, Winton began to arrange plans to have children evacuated from Prague and taken to safety in the United Kingdom. But it wasn’t simply a case of dreaming up a plan and putting it into practice. There were a vast many political hoops to jump through.
In November 1938 the United Kingdom had agreed to accept Jewish children from Austria and Germany but had made no mentioned of Czechoslovakia. So, Winton’s first step was to convince the UK government to accept the children. The government eventually agreed, but only under very specific circumstances. A foster family had to be secured for each child, and each child also had to have an attached bond of £50, which roughly translates $3,000 in present day currency.
Finally, with the help of a UK schoolteacher, Trevor Chadwick, and others, Winton managed to arrange 8 transports to shuttle the children to the UK. 669 were saved, and the mission extended over the course of the summer in 1939.
Just The Beginning
If any do know the story of Winton and his collaborators, the above is probably the part they’re aware of. But in reality, this really was just a small slice of a much longer, and more complicated story. Transporting the children was just a fraction of what occurred. Winton underwent a painstakingly long process to find families for the children, raise the needed money, forge multiple documents, bribe numerous officials, and other heroic acts. There are, in reality, a vast multitude of small, generally unmentioned details and small challenges that were overcome in order to make it all possible. Plus, Winton himself was only a small part of a much bigger group of collaborators.
Today, there are an estimated 7,000, the descendants of those who were saved, who give their thanks to Winton, and those who worked beside him. In 2003 Winton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for Services to Humanity. Then, in October 2014 he was awarded the Order of the White Lion by the Czech Republic. It is the highest honour that the Czech Republic can bestow on any one individual.
Despite all this, Winton insisted until his dying day that he had only done what anyone would have done, if they had been put into a similar situation.