If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Sir Nicholas Winton

Nicholas Winton's statue at Prague rail station 
While doing research for a book I am writing, I came across the extraordinary story of Nicholas George Winton, an ordinary man who proved himself to be a true hero at an extremely dangerous time in history. I cannot but share it here. The Photograph is from Wikipedia and the information is from Wikipedia and a few other sources.

In 1939, just days before the Second World War began, Nicholas Winton risked his life to save 669 mostly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia in an operation later known as the Czech Kindertransport (German for "child transportation"). He ensured their safe passage to Britain.  They would have been dead otherwise. And some of the children saved by Winton grew up to become mathematician, paediatric geneticist, film maker, parliamentarian, and so on. 

If Winton’s feat was incredible, what followed was even more so.
Like a true hero, he never publicised his efforts. Neither did he try to profit from it. Fifty years later, his wife found a scrapbook in their attic that contained the names, pictures, and documents of the children he had saved. 

And the world came to know his humongous exploits much later, through an episode of the BBC television programme That’s Life! in 1988. BBC invited Winton to the programme as a member of the audience. During the programme, the host of the programme, Esther Rantzen showed Winton's scrapbook and narrated his achievements. Then she asked if anybody in the audience owed their live to Winton, and if so, to stand up. More than two dozen people sitting around Winton and his wife rose and applauded.

Sir Nicholas was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2003 and received the highest Czech honour, the Order of the White Lion in 2014. He died on 1 July 2015, aged 106. 

Nicholas Winton was born on 19 May 1909 in Hampstead, London. His parents were German Jews who had relocated to London two years before. The family name was Wertheim, but they changed it to Winton in an effort at integration. They also converted to Christianity, and Winton was baptised. 

In 1923, Winton entered school, but left without qualifications. He attended night school while volunteering at the Midland Bank. He then moved to Hamburg, Berlin, and Paris, working for different banks. He also earned a banking qualification in France. Returning to London, he became a broker at the London Stock Exchange. 

Shortly before Christmas 1938, Winton was planning to travel to Switzerland for a skiing holiday. But he decided instead to visit Prague and help the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, then in the process of being occupied by Germany. 

Winton single-handedly established an organization to aid children from Jewish families at risk from the Nazis. He set up his office at a dining room table in his Prague hotel. 

In the night of 9-10 November 1938, paramilitary forces and German civilians killed Jews throughout Nazi Germany, while the German authorities looked on. The pogrom was known as the Night of Broken Glass. The name comes from shards of broken glass that littered the streets of German cities after windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues were smashed.

After the Night of the broken glass, the British Parliament allowed the entry into Britain of refugees younger than 17, provided they had a place to stay and a warranty of £50 was deposited for their eventual return to their own country. 

However, the Dutch government refused Jewish refugees to enter the Netherlands, and the children were to board a ferry from there. The Dutch border guards sent the refugees back to Germany, despite the horrors being well known. 

Winton was able to overcome the impediment thanks to guarantees he had obtained from Britain. After the first train, the process of crossing the Netherlands went smoothly. Winton ultimately found homes in Britain for 669 children, many of whose parents would later perish in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Throughout the summer of 1939, he, with the help of his mother, placed photographs of the children in Picture Post seeking families to adopt them. He also wrote to US politicians such as Roosevelt, asking them to take in more children. 

Winton later said that two thousand more might have been saved if they had helped, but only Sweden accepted some refugee children, besides Britain. 

The last group of 250, scheduled to leave Prague on 1 September 1939, was unable to depart as Hitler invaded Poland on the same day, and the Second World War had begun. Of the children due to leave by that train, only two survived the war.

Sadly, 2017 looks disturbingly like 1938. As I write this, millions of refugees are living in terrible camps unprotected from cold, rain, and snow. And borders are being sealed. People who could have had the same fate as the Syrian refugees if history had moved in a different direction, are trying their best to throw out starving children from their doors. 

The world needs lots of Nichlas George Wintons today.

Bengaluru / 05 Feb 2017

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