Op-ed: Kindertransport

Op-ed: Kindertransport January 30, 2020

I think we need some refreshment from the likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Let’s forget about them for a few minutes and think about Nicholas Winton instead.

Image via YouTube

This video and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum tell us more about him:

Nicholas Winton was born Nicholas Wertheimer on May 19, 1909, in West Hampstead, England, and baptized as a member of the Anglican Church by decision of his parents who were of German Jewish ancestry. He was a stockbroker by profession.

In December 1938, Martin Blake, a friend and an instructional master at the Westminster School in London, asked Winton to forego his planned ski vacation and visit him in Czechoslovakia, where he had traveled in his capacity as an associate of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia. This committee had been established in October 1938 to provide assistance for refugees created by the German annexation of the Sudeten regions under the terms of the Munich Pact.

Not unlike the way Israel’s annexation of pieces of the West Bank via illegal “settlements” keeps creating Palestinian refugees … but I said we need refreshment, and focusing on the ignorance and arrogance of Jared Kushner won’t help with that.

Winton accepted his friend’s request and went to Prague.

After Munich, Winton had been certain that the Germans would occupy the rest of Bohemia and Moravia before long. He had been alarmed further by the violence against the Jewish community in Germany and Austria during the Kristallnacht riots in November 1938. When he heard of subsequent efforts of Jewish agencies in Britain to rescue German and Austrian Jewish children on the so-called Kindertransport, an effort that eventually brought about 10,000 unaccompanied children to safety in Great Britain, Winton summoned a small group of people to organize a similar rescue operation for children imperiled by the impending German dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in March 1939.

He opened an office in Prague, and thousands of parents lined up seeking safety for their children.

Winton returned to London to organize the rescue operation on that end. He raised money to fund the transports of the children and the 50 pound per child guarantee demanded by the British government to fund the children’s eventual departure from Britain. He also had to find British families willing to care for the refugee children. By day, Winton worked at his regular job on the Stock Exchange, and then devoted late afternoons and evenings to his rescue efforts. He made a great effort to raise money and find foster homes to bring as many children as possible to safety.

The first transport of children organized by Winton left Prague by plane for London on March 14, 1939, the day before the Germans occupied the Czech lands. After the Germans established a Protectorate in the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, Winton organized seven further transports that departed by rail out of Prague and across Germany to the Atlantic Coast, then by ship across the English Channel to Britain. At the train station in London, British foster parents waited to collect the children. The last trainload of children left Prague on August 2, 1939. Rescue activities ceased when Germany invaded Poland and Britain declared war in Germany in early September 1939.

And the remaining children were in the power of Hitler’s Reich.

The total number of children rescued through Winton’s efforts is not yet certain. According to a scrapbook he kept, 664 children came to Great Britain on transports that he organized. In the research compiled for the documentary “The Power of Good: Nicholas Winton,” aired on Czech television in 2002, researchers identified five additional persons who entered Britain on a Winton-financed transport, bringing the official number to 669 children. The available information indicates that some children who were rescued have not yet been identified.

After the war, Nicholas Winton’s rescue efforts remained virtually unknown. It was not until 1988, when his wife Grete found a scrapbook from 1939 with all the children’s photos and a complete list of names of those rescued that Winton’s rescue efforts became known.

For nearly 50 years he kept it to himself.

A BBC schools resource has further details on the obstacles he had to deal with to get the children to safety.

Transporting hundreds of young refugees across Europe required careful planning. Winton returned to London and a mountain of paperwork. The British government was only willing to let vulnerable children enter the country if strict conditions were met.

Winton had to arrange a foster family for every refugee who left Czechoslovakia. A few children had relatives waiting in Britain. But in most cases, Winton had to persuade complete strangers to take the children in. He placed ads in newspapers calling for volunteers. Fortunately, the British government had already begun plans to evacuate British children from city centres in the event of war so the British public were familiar with the idea of opening their homes to those in need.

Familiar with the idea isn’t the same thing as eager to do it, though.

If only we could have more Nicholas Wintons and fewer of those other kinds.

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  • Tawreos

    There were so many unsung heroes in that war. I wonder how many more have yet to be uncovered.

  • laura1919

    It’s a great reminder that in dark times, it is important that those of us with the ability help those most harmed by institutionalized cruelty. Even if it’s not as dramatic as Nicholas Winton’s incredible work, every little bit helps.

  • One of the Kindertransport children was Joe Schlesinger. He and his younger brother Ernest were taken to England. Their parents died in the Holocaust. After the war Joe became a journalist, working for Associated Press as a translator in Czechoslovakia. When the Communists began arresting local journalists he fled, eventually joining Ernest in Canada. After years of working as a print journalist in Canada and abroad he became a TV journalist for the CBC, becoming a familiar face as he covered events ranging from the Vietnam War to the fall of the Berlin Wall. He passed away in February of last year.

  • Jim Jones

    One of my heroes! And an atheist.

  • Brian Davis

    …an effort that eventually brought about 10,000 unaccompanied children to safety in Great Britain…

    How did they ever find enough cages for them all?

  • Ophelia Benson

    That’s good to know.

  • Ophelia Benson

    That’s what I was thinking. I feel as if we’re DROWNING in bad actors right now.

  • Erp

    My great grandfather housed kindertransport children (as well as other refugees). Note the guarantee, 50 pounds, was not pocket change; it is about $4,700 in today’s dollars if adjusting for inflation or about 50% of a working man’s annual income in England in the 1930s. The British government could have done a lot more (it was pushed reluctantly into allowing children in under more lenient standards), see Eleanor Rathbone and see also https://www.worldjewishrelief.org/news/820-read-the-speeches-from-parliament-that-led-to-the-kindertransport debate (note this is in 1938 and some MPs in parliament had been advocating for refugees to be admitted more easily since 1933).

  • Jim Jones

    Winton asked Roosevelt to accept about 2,000 more children into the US. He got no reply.

    About 2 of those children survived.

  • Erp

    Wikipedia has 57 entries in the Kindertransport refugee category https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Kindertransport_refugees

  • Pam