Nicholas Winton_in_Prague

Sir Nicholas Winton in Prague 

The history of the Kindertansports is a poignant tale of rescue, separation, loss and integration following the persecution of Jews in the Nazi Reich and countries annexed by the Germans during 1938, and 1939. Following the Kristallnacht outrage against the Jews on November 9, 1938, as a response as to what was happening to the Jews living in the Reich, a debate was held in the British House of Commons, as a direct result of an appeal by the British Jewish Refugee Committee. 

The British Government had just refused to allow 10,000 Jewish children to enter Palestine, but with the atrocities in Germany, there was a change of heart, best expressed by the words of British Foreign Minister Samuel Hoare: 'Here is a chance of taking the young generation of a great people, here is a chance of mitigating to some extent the terrible suffering of their parents and friends.' 

The British Government agreed to permit an unspecified number of children under the age of seventeen to enter the United Kingdom. The children were allowed to enter the British Isles on temporary travel documents, with the belief that the children would re-join their parents at a later date, when things returned to normal. A £50 Sterling bond had to be posted for each child, to assure their ultimate resettlement. 

A number of people and organisations rose to the immense challenge of organising the transports, Jews, Christians, and Quakers worked together to get the children out of Germany and the territories annexed by the Germans, such as Austria, and Czechoslovakia. The framework for the refugee operation was formed by Lola Hahn- Warburg, several years earlier, Lord Baldwin, Rebecca Sieff, Sir Wyndham Deeds, Viscount Samuel, Rabbi Solomon Schoenfeld, who saved approximately 1,000 Orthodox Jewish children. 

In addition Nicholas Winton rescued 669 Jewish children in Prague. Sir Nicholas Winton deserves to be remembered in full. He was born on May 19, 1909, in Hampstead, London. He was born to German -Jewish parents named Wertheim, who had emigrated to Britain from Germany at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Nicholas Winton became a broker at the London Stock Exchange after working in the banking industry in Germany and France. Shortly before Christmas 1938, he was planning to travel to Switzerland for a skiing holiday. Following a call for help from Marie Schmolka and Doreen Warriner, he decided instead to visit Prague and help his socialist friend Martin Blake, who was in Prague, working as an associate of the British Committee for Refugees. 

Alongside the Czechoslovak Refugee Committee volunteers such as Trevor Chadwick,, Beatrice Wellington, Nicholas Winton worked in organising to aid children from Jewish families at risk from Nazi persecution. These volunteers set up their office at a dining room table at the Hotel Wenceslas Square. Nicholas Winton spent one month in Prague and he returned home to Britain in January 1939. 

Nicholas Winton succeeded thanks to the guarantees he had obtained from the British Government, to achieve the smooth crossings within the Netherlands. He ultimately found homes in Britain for 669 children. His mother Barbara worked with him to place the Jewish children in homes and later hostels. Throughout the Summer of 1939, he placed photographs of the children in Picture Post seeking families to accept them. 

The last group of children scheduled to leave Prague on September 1, 1939, was unable to depart due to Hitler's invasion of Poland which resulted in the beginning of the Second World War. In 1940, Nicholas Winton changed his mind on his conscientious objector stance, and joined the Royal Airforce, a service in which he served until May 19, 1954. 

He married Grete Gjestrup, a secretary from Denmark and they settled in Maidenhead, Berkshire, in the south-east of Britain. They had three children, the youngest Robin, had Down's Syndrome and died when he was just six-years old. 

The wider world found out about Nicholas Winton's rescue efforts in February 1988, during an episode of the popular BBC Television programme, 'Thats Life,' hosted by Esther Rantzen. In a later follow-up programme, in which Nicholas Winton appeared, Esther Rantzen asked whether anybody in the audience was among the children who owed their life to Nicholas Winton? If so would they kindly stand, more than two dozen did so. She then asked if anyone present was the child or grandchild of one of the children Nicholas Winton had saved, and the rest of the audience stood up. 

Nicholas Winton won a number of awards for his rescue work, at home and abroad, and in 1983, in the Birthday Honours he was awarded the MBE for his work in establishing the Abbeyfield Homes for the elderly in Britain. More recognition was to come, for in 2003, New Years Honours List he was knighted for his services to humanity, in recognition for his rescue work in respect of the Kindertransports  Sir Nicholas Winton died in his sleep following a cardiac arrest on July 1, 2015, at Wexham Park Hospital in Slough. He was 106, years-old. 

Also worthy of mention is Truus Wismuller -Meyer, a Dutch Christian who stood up to Adolf Eichmann in Vienna and brought out 600, children on one train and organised a transport from Riga to Sweden and helped smuggle a group of children onto the illegal ship Dora bound from Marseille to Palestine. She also was responsible for guiding the last transport through burning Amsterdam in May 1940, to the freighter Bodegraven. 

The first sealed train transport left Germany on December 1, 1938, and it arrived in Harwich from the Hook of Holland, carrying two hundred children, all of them orphans, who had left Germany with just twenty-four hours notice, each with two bags of clothing. Among the German Jews who found refuge in Britain, on the Kindertransports was Eric Lucas, who recalled his journey from Germany, and his moving account deserves to be told in full: 

The town where we lived was the border-control point, as beyond it stretched the still free towns of Belgium and Holland . In just over an hour the train would speed through the fertile lowlands of Belgium, and would take me right to the Channel Port of Ostend. I was the only passenger who boarded the train at that station. To travel abroad, to leave the country was only granted to emigrants and those who had special reason connected with the interests of the state. 

The travellers were few, but the customs officials and the guarding soldiers were many. The men on whose whim hung one's final leaving were sinister tall figures in new black uniforms. When I was at last allowed to board the train, I rushed to the window to look for my parents, whom I could not see until I had left the customs shed. They stood there in the distance, but they did not come to the train. I waved timidly and yet full of fear, after the control I had just passed, but even that was too much. A man in a black uniform rushed towards me, 'You Jewish swine - one more sign or word from you and we shall keep you here. You have passed the customs.' 

And so I stood at the window of the train. In the distance stood a silent aging couple, to whom I dared neither speak nor wave a last farewell, but I could see their faces very distinctly in the light of the oncoming morning. A few hours previously, first my father and then my mother had laid their hands gently on my bowed head, to bless me, asking God to let be like Ephraim and Menashe. 'Let it be well with you. Do your work and duty, and if God wills it, we shall see you again. Never forget that you are a Jew, do not forget your people, and do not forget us.' Thus my father had said and his eyes had grown soft and dim. 'My Boy - it may be that we can come after you, but you will never be away from me - from your mother.' Tears streamed down her infinitely kind and sad face. With a last effort she continued in the old, so familiar Hebrew words, 'Go now, in life and peace.' 

Standing at the window of the train, I was suddenly overcome with a maiming certainty that I would never see my father and mother again. There they stood, lonely and with the sadness of death. Cruel hands kept us apart in that last intimate moment. A passionate rebellious cry stuck in my throat against all that senseless brutality and inhuman cruelty. Why O God had it all to be like that?

There stood my father and my mother, an old man leaning heavily on his stick and holding his wife's hand. It was the first and last time in my life that I had seen them both weep. Now and then my mother would stretch her hand out, as if to grasp mine - but the hand fell back, knowing it could never reach. Can the world ever justify the pain that burned in my father's eyes? My father's eyes were gentle and soft, but filled with tears of loneliness and fear. They were the eyes of a child that seeks the kindness of its mother's face, and the protection of its father. 

As the train pulled out of the station, to wheel me to safety, I leant my face against the cold glass of the window, and wept bitterly. 'Those who have crossed the Channel, escaping from fear of death to safety, can understand what it means to wait for those who are still beyond it, longing to cross it, but who will never reach those white cliffs, towering over the water.'

Despite the best efforts by Eric Lucas to obtain a visa for his parents to join him in Britain, he was not able to secure such a document, and four years later both his parents perished. His father Isaac was born on October 26, 1878, in Warden, Germany, and was murdered in the Treblinka death camp in Poland during 1942. Eric's mother Sophie Lucas, formerly Sulzberger, was born on June 19, 1890, in Wiesbaden. She was deported to the East during 1942, where she was deported from and where she went is unknown. She probably died in 1942. 

Returning to the general history of the Kindertransports, the children arriving in Britain who had pre-arranged sponsors waiting for them were sent to London to be met and taken to their new homes. Those who did not have foster parents waited in Dovercourt, a summer holiday camp, and similar places until foster families came forward to look after them. Many organisations and individuals helped settle the Jewish refugees into a new life in Britain, including the Refugee Children's Movement, the B'Nai B'rith, The Chief Rabbi's Religious Emergency Council, the Y.M.C.A. and Society of Friends.

As well as individual donations of money, bedding and clothes, large property to serve as hostels were also made available. The children from the Kindertransports were dispersed to many parts of the British Isles, in private homes, boarding schools. Others lived in hostels and farms in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Those older than fourteen years of age, who did not go to boarding schools were often absorbed into Britain's labour force, either in agriculture, or in domestic service. Some older children, as soon as they reached eighteen years of age, joined the Allied armed forces, and played their part in defeating the Nazis. Many families, Jewish and non-Jewish opened their homes to take in these children, the vast majority were well treated, and close bonds were developed, some which lasted for all their lives. 

In 1988, Bertha Leverton, herself a member of the Kindertransports, living in London, planned a 50th anniversary local reunion of those who came to Britain on the Kindertransports and in June 1989, over 1,200 people attended from many countries such as the United States of America, Canada, Australia attended an international reunion.

The Kindertransports were a remarkable humanitarian venture and approximately 10,000 children were rescued on the transports that commenced on December 1, 1938, and the last one that left continental Europe on September 1, 1939. 


Kindertransports Association (KTA)

Sir Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust, Collins London 1986

Diana Schulle, Alfred B. Gottwaldt, Die Juden Deportation aus der Deutschen Reich, Marixverlag 2005 

Wiener Library 

Bundesarchiv Gedankbuch 

Yad Vashem Central Database of Shoah Victims  

Thanks to Victor Smart 

Holocaust Historical Society, January 18, 2024