In His Own Words: Rescuer Nicholas Winton
"I mean, after all, you didn’t need any special knowledge to bring children out. You needed a lot of effort and work and initiative…" Listen to Sir Nicholas Winton describe how he helped organize the rescue of hundreds of children from Czechoslovakia during the months leading up to World War II. Learn more about his experiences and about why he decided to become a rescuer.
Nicholas Winton organized a rescue operation that brought approximately 669 children, mostly Jewish, from Czechoslovakia to safety in Great Britain before the outbreak of World War II.
In His Own Words
"Obviously everybody knew that the Germans marched into Sudetenland. Everybody in England said, you know, 'This is Hitler’s last ambition and he’s not going to do any more.' When I was over there and found out that in marching into Sudetenland not only meant that they were marching into that part of Czechoslovakia, which was chiefly inhabited by Germans, but all their defenses were in that line too. So from that moment on Czechoslovakia was pretty defenseless in any case. And of course, Prague was full of Germans already. We were followed around the whole time by the Germans. There one could see what was going on. When one wrote home and said, 'Look, this is happening,' they either didn’t want to or didn’t believe that what we were actually seeing there meant what we were perfectly certain that it meant – that the Germans were on their way."
"Well, as I said, I went round the camps and I was told of the people whom the British Committee were trying to get out. And every day I met up with Doreen Wariner to discuss what was going on. And we usually met at one of the big hotels, the Alcron, and discussed what was going on. And in conversation she said, 'There are all these children, you know, who should be got out, but the British Committee just can’t do anything about it at all. They’re far too overworked with the business of trying to get out the political refugees, the writers and all those people endangered.' And said to me, 'Look, if anything can be done, perhaps you’d like to try and do it.' And that’s really how it started."
"Well, I was only then, when I came back to England, I was working on the stock exchange, which luckily was a job which finished at three-thirty in the afternoon so I could go back and carry on trying to, to make arrangements for bringing children over. And as I say, the British Committee for Refugees From Czechoslovakia didn’t give me… weren’t able to give me either office space or any help whatsoever. And I just had note paper printed with their name on it, and put under, "Children’s Section," and worked from my private home up in Hampstead. And the Reverend Rosalind Lee, whom I mentioned, sent me the first hundred pounds to pay for correspondence and everything. And we got newspapers like Picture Post to write articles saying that we were looking for guarantors and that we were looking for homes where these children would be looked after until the end of war. And this started to trickle in, and as we got people who would take children, so we sent them lists of children and even photos of children, and got them to choose children, and we then sent these out to Trevor Chadwick in Prague, who then arranged for the transport and the getting the children together, whilst we arranged for the people who were receiving the children to arrive at Liverpool Street Station to receive them."
"But the time we really got going, the Germans were in charge because they arrived in March ’39. And then, of course, they had to get exit permits from the Germans for these children to leave. They then had to arrange with [inaudible] to get a train and they then had to arrange for escorts to go with the train. They then had to find out from [inaudible] how much the operation would cost and we had to send out money eventually to cover that cost. [Inaudible] then used blackmail tactics and two days before the train was due to leave they’d say they wanted another thousand pounds or something, which was a lot of money in those days, which once you got all the children moving to a railway station in Prague and once you got all the people who are going to receive the children in England posted that they had to be at Liverpool Street Station at a certain time, it’s not an operation that you could cancel. Whatever they’d ask for somehow or another we would have had to produce. But there was a lot of work to be done in Prague and it was done very well. The work we had to do in England was to find… to meet the conditions which the home office had laid down, which was having a guarantor fifty pounds for each person, which they designated as being money which would be used for the children’s eventual repatriation at the end of the war, if there were a war. There wasn’t a war to start with. And then we slowly got people coming in saying, yes that they would take a child. And that accelerated when a lady came to me who had been working for the British Committee and brought me all the names of their correspondence throughout the country. So I was able to use that with an appeal for children, which of course always brings results. For children and animals, the two most easiest things to get sympathy and raise money. So, it went slowly but it did work. I mean we never got, obviously, as many guarantors as we wanted, but we didn’t have an awful lot of time to work on them. And when we got a guarantee for a reasonable number of people, we’d produce the paper work, send it out to Prague, and Prague then had all the job of arranging the trains and the escorts and the money and dealing with all the parents and getting the children onto the train. It was quite an operation in Prague."
"I just left one office and went home and did the other work. It didn’t seem strange to me at the time. I had the police call on me, I remember, asking why I had that enormous correspondence with Czechoslovakia from a private house, but I think I was far too busy to entertain those kinds of thoughts at that time. It was two different lives. I mean people mostly on the stock exchange, or a lot of people on the stock exchange, I didn’t talk to about what I was doing. I mean nearly all of them or most of them had completely different political views and opinions to mine, so there was really no point in discussing it. They couldn’t help in any way. At least some of them whom I was more friendly with very likely gave me some money for the running of the office, but I can’t really remember those details any more. I don’t think when I left the City at three-thirty most of the people knew what I was doing in the evenings. I don’t think so. I mean there was certainly nobody I knew in the City who in any way helped me with what I was doing with regard to the children, nobody at all. It was two existences, separate, self contained."
"I mean, after all, you didn’t need any special knowledge to bring children out. You needed a lot of effort and work and initiative and dealing with authority and all that, but that was general knowledge. It wasn’t any particular knowledge. Not like the workings of the stock exchange where you had to know how it worked and what the commissions were and what you had to do and when you had to do it and for whom you had to do it and what the price was and remember the price while you were doing something else. It was nothing like that in dealing with children. No, it was quite different."
"Although most of the children we brought out were Jewish, I was only looking for families who looked after children. I wasn’t concerned at all whether these children went to Jewish or non-Jewish families and this was largely due to the fact that I think that those people who had been out in Prague and those people who knew what I was doing, Martin Blake and Doreen Wariner and all that, were very conscious of the urgency, which one could see when one was out there. There was no question when we were looking for a family to look after the children that a Jew should go to a Jew or a non-Jew should go… it seemed to us at that time, perhaps because I’m non-religious myself, I don’t know, but it seemed to me completely secondary. The chief thing was to save the children."
"Of the ones we know where the guarantor is still alive, they’re very faithful in keeping in touch. But of course, one must admit that a lot of the children weren’t happy where they were sent. And there was an aftercare department in fact when the war started that Mother looked after which tried when children had problems to get the problems settled or get new guarantors for them. But I certainly don’t assume and one cannot assume that every child we brought over went into a home and was well treated and was happy. A lot of them we know were. We certainly know some that were not, who were badly treated and used as servants. But quite frankly at the time I didn’t think of it and it really doesn’t concern me very greatly now. I mean you’re bound to have some who weren’t happy and all one can say is that they are still alive whereas most of the other children aren’t."
Critical Thinking Questions
- What pressures and motivations may have influenced the decisions of rescuers? Are these factors unique to this history or universal?
- What pressures and motivations led Winton to action?
- Investigate choices (such as resisting, supporting the regime, remaining indifferent, or other actions) by other individuals during the Holocaust.
- How can societies, communities, and individuals reinforce and strengthen the willingness to stand up for others?