‘British Schindler’ Nicholas Winton: “I Wasn’t a Hero”

“I was not a hero for I was never put into danger,” that is how ‘British Schindler’ Nicholas Winton views the courageous deed he pulled before the outbreak of the Second World War — helping over 600 mainly Jewish kids escape Czechoslovakia before Nazi Germany invaded Poland and closed down the borders.

At 105 years old, interviewing the man who is widely known as the ‘British Schindler’ was tricky. Very advanced in years, the once energetic man now easily tires, is a little deaf and already suffers from lapses in his memory. Being impeded after years of enjoying a vital life made Nicholas Winton a bit tart but the The Guardian team who did a recent interview with him was thrilled at meeting the man who played an important part in early WWII history.

The ‘British Schindler’: Jewish Roots

Born in a family of Jewish-German roots in London in 1909, the Winton surname was originally Wertheim but his family had decided to anglicized it. The Wintons were highly cultured and had good connections.

Nicholas went to the public school in Stowe in the 1920s and eventually became a stockbroker. However, unlike any other stockbroker, Nicholas was an active socialist who had close ties with a number of Labor party VIPs such as Tom Driberg, Jennie Lee and Aneurin Bevan.

It was in 1938 when, instead of going to Switzerland to spend an enjoyable skiing holiday,  Nicholas decided to go to Prague with close friend and socialist Martin Blake. The latter had wanted to extend a helping hand at the many refugees flooding the city after Nazi Germany annexed Sudetenland.

However, it was Nicholas Winton who took a leading role in their stay in the city. He pursued the Home Office, and successfully he did, to allow entry of the eight trainloads filled with Czech children. The operation went on for the next nine months. Supposedly, a ninth train was due to leave on the 1st of September in 1939 but that was the fateful day Germany invaded Poland and closed down the Czech borders.

The 250 children refugees who were supposed to be in the train died in various concentration camps instead.

Uncovering of a Secret

Nicholas Winton’s story went untold for five decades. It wasn’t until the late wife of the ‘British Schindler’, Greta, brought out an aged scrapbook filled with photos and the names of the refugees Winton managed to help to Elisabeth Maxwell that the 50-year-old secret was let out. Mrs. Maxwell, a Holocaust researcher, happened to be the wife of Robert Maxwell, newspaper owner.

When he got hold of the story, it was featured in an article in the Sunday People. The article led to Nicholas Winton appearing in a That’s Life episode in  February 1988. During that said episode, the ‘British Schindler’ Nicholas Winton got a teary surprise — sitting next to him and several rows behind him were some of the children refugees he helped escape Czechoslovakia and into the arms of foster parents which his mother had arranged for in the UK.

Tributes to the Silent Hero

That episode in That’s Life  led to a series of tributes to his heroic deed though they were years late. The ‘British Schindler’ was knighted way back in 2003, a statue was made in his honor and put up at the Prague Railway Station and just last month, Nicholas Winton was given Czechoslovakia’s highest honor, the Order of the White Lion.

Furthermore, a small planet discovered by two Czech astronomers were named after him in 1998. In fact, the map of its location within the solar system is mounted just at the back of his favorite armchair.

He is hailed as someone grand but if Nicholas had a choice, he did not want any of it. He stated that relating the same story over and over again is boring and even added that he wasn’t a hero at all for he never got himself into danger. He is more enthusiastic to push some of his colleagues, Doreen Warriner and Trevor Chadwick, to the limelight rather than himself. These two dodged off the attentions of the Gestapo while they were in Prague and stayed in the city until the war broke out. According to him, they are more deserving to be named after Spielberg’s masterpiece than him.

All the more, Nicholas puts his being grand to living a long life. He said that since the others are not here anymore and only he is left surviving, there is no one else to shower accolades to.

But no matter, the world is glad and will be eternally indebted  for what he did. In those chaotic times, those within his circle knew the dangers the Jews faced and were doing all they could to help the adult refugees in danger. But nobody thought about the welfare of the children and it was he, Nicholas Winton, the ‘British Schindler’, who stepped into that shoe saving many lives in the process.

Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE