The late Sir Nicholas Winton saved the lives of 669 children, most of them Jewish, when he organised for them to leave Czechoslovakia for his native UK on the eve of WWII. His daughter Barbara Winton has told his remarkable story in the book If It's Not Impossible...: The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton and in July discussed what drove him and much more at the Melting Pot forum at Colours of Ostrava music festival, which is where I caught up with her.
"I think the journey began in Prague, in fact. He saw refugees in Prague, desperately trying to find ways out.
“But in the camps he saw appalling conditions: snow on the ground, no shoes on the children, very poor conditions.
“I think that as much as anything made him recognise that it was intolerable to leave children in those conditions, for an indefinite period of time.”
And he set about trying to save them, to get them out of the country. That must have been a huge logistical operation. What did it involve in concrete terms?
“The first thing it involved was getting permission of the British government, and also finding out the conditions under which they could leave and come to Britain.
“Because of that, he had to be in Britain for the project.
“So he had the help of a man called Trevor Chadwick, a schoolteacher, who spent from February to June in Prague, collecting names of children, organising the trains and negotiating with the Gestapo.
“He saw refugees in Prague, desperately trying to find ways out. But in the camps he saw appalling conditions.”
“My father was doing the logistical work from Britain, trying to drum up families who would take in each child – and lots of lots of money, to guarantee their repatriation and to pay for the trains.
“So it was a big logistical exercise. And on top of the people doing it, it needed them to be able to put all the different parts together.”
What was the response of the German authorities of what he was doing?
“According to Trevor, they were fine about it.
“The Czech commander Karl Bömelburg was called Criminal Rat, which impressed Trevor no end, to be able to call this guy a criminal rat.
“According to Trevor his only query was, Why did Britain want so many Jewish children?
“After all it was their policy at the time – to cleanse Europe of Jews.
What was the general attitude in the UK toward the kindertransports? I know there was some opposition, at least.
“Well, it wasn’t much different to today. There were those who felt it was their duty to help and there were those who felt we had enough problems of our own and we shouldn’t take in anybody.”
Were they Jewish community generally open to taking them in?
“I think many in the Jewish community tried to help, but they were overwhelmed by the numbers.
“After all, there were 10,000 being brought in from Germany and Austria at the time, so finding enough Jewish homes was impossible.”
I heard you speaking here at Colours of Ostrava a couple of days ago, and you were saying that there was some rabbi who was opposed to these children being put with Christian families.
“That’s right. My father had that kind of opposition and he wasn’t very sympathetic at the time.
“He knew they were religious sensitivities, but at that point he felt that time was of the essence and he had to get them out any way he could.”
Your father was a very young man at that time. Where did he find the confidence to do what he did, do you know?
“It wasn’t much different to today. There were those who felt it was their duty to help and there were those who felt we shouldn’t take in anybody.”
“He had a public school upbringing. He worked in the City and worked quite independently in some of his jobs.
“He had a strong sense that he was right in most of his enterprises.
“And having decided that this was right, he got on with it.”
This may seem like a perverse question given the incredible thing that he achieved, but did he have regrets at all?
“The regret was that the war started before they had got out all the names on their lists.
“They had organised a very big train on the first of September which was the biggest he would have organised: 250.
“They had found 250 foster families and 250 times 50 pounds, to pay for their repatriation.
“So all that work was done and it was for nothing.”
When did you first learn about what your father had done? And what was your reaction to that story?
“I guess we knew growing up. We saw the scrapbook that he had from the time.
“But the point is none of us, including him, understood the implications of it until we began to meet the children themselves.
“Then it stopped being historical information and became about living people and their lives.”
Famously he was on That’s Life, which was a huge programme on UK TV, in the late 1980s and met some of the children. What did that mean for the rest of his life? How did that shape the rest of his life?
“He had a busy life, even after retirement, doing charitable work, so it meant he was a lot more busy even than that, because he met so many children who wanted to come and speak to him, some of whom became close friends.
“So it gave him a whole other aspect to his life, which he found very enjoyable – listening to people’s life stories and talking with them about the issues of the day.”
I understand that today you yourself have a relationship with some of these people who are still alive?
“Yes, quite a few. I know them very well.
“When I come to the Czech Republic I meet as many as I can who are still around.
“And in Britain I know them and I know the next generation as well. I have some close friends among the second generation.”
“My father had a strong sense that he was right in most of his enterprises. And having decided that this was right, he got on with it.”
Are there many who came back to live here?
“I don’t know about many, but I guess in the ’90s when my father first came he met maybe 20.”
I follow you on Twitter and I know that you pay attention to Czech events. Generally speaking, how do you view the way politics has been developing here in recent years?
“Well, I think we all have our problems with politics these days.
“I guess I think that one of the important things about life is that people have a decent standard of living, if possible, and that they’re kind to people around them.
“I always get distressed when I listen to rhetoric that pits people against each other, because I don’t think anybody gets the best from that situation.
I saw yesterday you were wearing a badge that said you were proud to be a pravdoláskař, a “truth and love brigade” person.
“Yes, absolutely. I met Václav Havel [with whom the term pravdoláskař is associated] several times.
“I admired him tremendously. My father admired him tremendously, for what he was attempting to do and the fact that he tried to live up to his ideals.
“In politics I think that’s a very difficult thing to do.
“Many people would say that he didn’t succeed. But the fact that he tried, I think, was commendable.
“And I strongly believe, and hope, that love and truth will conquer hatred and lies.”
I understand you’re planning some anniversary event for the living Winton children for later this year?
“I admired Havel tremendously. My father admired him tremendously, for what he was attempting to do and the fact that he tried to live up to his ideals.”
“It’s not just for the Winton children. It’s the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Kindertransport for the whole 10,000 children.
“And we’re planning a big event in London at the Quaker Meeting House, because the Quakers were instrumental in helping the kindertransport.
“We’re hoping that there will be kinder from all over the world, their descendants, the descendants of the foster families who helped, who have not had the credit that they are due, and representatives of all the organisations who took part at the time, as well as organisations who are helping with child refugees today.”
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