Sunday, August 02, 2015

Sir Nicholas Winton - A Humble Hero of WWII Who Saved Hundreds of Lives

Sir Nicholas Winton
Before the month of August fully unfolds and we prepare to say farewell to summer and set our sights towards the general busy-ness of Autumn, I think it's important to remember a remarkable life that came to an end back on Wednesday July 1st.

By all historical accounts the amazing Sir Nicholas Winton (pictured left) had already lived a full life by the age of 36 when World War II ended in 1945, but he lived well into the 21st century until the remarkable age of 106 years old.

His obituary is truly fascinating.

As the opening dialog of Ken Burn's 2006 documentary of WWII, 'The War', reminds us:  

"The Second World War was fought in thousands of places, too many for any one accounting." 

Not all of those battles to win the war were fought on the battlefield, in the skies, or at sea; many were fought quietly or anonymously on the home front, or in the civilian arena by people like Sir Nicholas and his associates Doreen Warriner and Trevor Chadwick - their story merits its own accounting.

According to the Nichoals Winton Educational Project, over a two year period between 1938 - 1939 at the outset of WWII, Winton, with the aid of associates in Czechoslovakia and England, helped to save the lives of 669 Jewish children by arranging for them to be transported by train from the railway station in German-occupied Prague to safety in England where they were cared for by British foster families for the length of the war.

Jewish children arrive at Harwich, UK December 1938 [Getty]
Sir Nicholas was born to a well-to-do family that emigrated to England from Germany in 1907 and changed their last name to the more English-sounding Winton.

He was a 29 year-old stockbroker in 1938 about to take a ski vacation when an associate asked him to come to Prague to assist with the growing crisis of refugees who'd fled parts of Czechoslovakia and neighboring Poland to reach Prague in a desperate attempt to escape the Nazis.

Not long after his arrival in Prague to assist with the refugees, the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia itself began in March 1939, just twelve months after the rapid annexation of Austrian territory in March, 1938 known as 'The Anschluss'; when the public humiliation and persecution of Jewish citizens, and the sudden creation of concentration and labor camps quickly revealed the deadly consequences that awaited Jews who remained behind in areas under German control.
As a history buff, I'd heard of Winton's story before in somewhat of a peripheral way in the sense that I'd sort of viewed it as being up on sort of a "historical pedestal" and didn't feel a personal connection to it; because I'd never really taken the time or made the effort to read more about it.

But a recent article in the July 24th issue of The Hollywood Reporter about Winton by editor-at-large Kim Masters somehow humanized the story in a way that brought me closer to its subject.

Along with THR Chief Television Critic Tim Goodman and media writer Michael Wolff, Kim Masters is one of my favorite journalists covering the business of the entertainment industry. She's an excellent writer in addition to being balanced and extremely well-informed and I've heard numerous radio interviews with her on public radio as well.      

Statue at Prague's rail station honoring Sir Nicholas Winton
Her fascinating THR article revealed that not only had she personally met Sir Nicholas Winton, Masters' mother Alice was one of the 669 children that were saved by he and his associate's heroic efforts to navigate the bureaucracy of the Immigration section of the British Home Office, the Czech government, as well as the German Gestapo in order to coordinate the transport of Jewish refugees from Prague to safety in England.

As Masters' notes in her THR article she first met Winton in 1996 at her parent's home in Bethesda, Maryland - which caught my eye as I grew up in Bethesda; our family lived there from 1972 - 1985.

Masters wrote that is was her grandmother Sidonia who made the extremely difficult decision to send her three daughters away to England after her brother Heino moved from Berlin to London and found out about the program Winton and others operated known as the Kindertransport and urged his sister to take advantage of it while there was still time.

Personally I was also struck by the heartbreaking knowledge that after getting their children to safety, Masters' grandmother Sidnonia and her husband were eventually forced onto a train train that took them to the Nazi concentration camp in Poland known as Majdanek where they were killed in 1942.

I'd never actually heard of the Majdanek concentration camp until last week when I was searching images online for a photo image of the ovens for a blog I wrote last Wednesday to illustrate why Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's use of the words "marching them to the door of the oven." (to refer to his delusional vision of the consequences for Israelis after a nuclear deal was reached with Iran) was so vile and offensive.

The coincidence really struck me when I read that Masters' grandparents perished there.

Sadly, while a British Act of Parliament in 1938 permitted the children of refugees under the age of 17 to come to England provided money was put on deposit to pay for their eventual return back home at the end of the war, the United States was one of several nations that refused to accept any of the Jewish refugees; as Winton recalled: "I tried America but they didn't take any. It would have made a vast difference if they had."

The Czech Kinderstransport network ended on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, tragically the ninth and final train with 250 Jewish children on board headed for freedom in England was stopped by German authorities after it had departed Prague due to the outbreak of the war; and it, along with their passengers, was never seen again.

Winton (center) serving as an ambulance driver in WWII
Winton went on to become a conscientious objector during the war and served as an ambulance driver before joining the RAF where he eventually became a commissioned officer.

But the incredible legacy of Winton and his many associates is the impact their efforts had on the thousands of lives they affected by saving 669 children between 1938-1939.

To me it also brings the global response of nations to the massive refugee crisis in places like Northern Africa, Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and Turkey into perspective as thousands flee the ravages of war, poverty and violence from extremist groups like ISIS.

If Nicholas Winton and a relatively small number of people could find a way to save 669 refugees in two years, surely the collective resources of the leading Western nations could find ways to make a difference in the lives of thousands of displaced refugees today.

As Winton himself said, "If something is not impossible, then there must be a way to do it."  

No comments: