Nicholas Winton is dead

by Harry on July 1, 2015

Winton organized the Czech kinderstransport that delivered a total of 669 children bound for concentration camps to the UK, instead. He kept quiet about it until his wife found his records in the attic. He lived to 106, and died today, the anniversary of the train carrying the largest number of children — 241 — departed from Prague. BBC story here. Account of how he pulled it off here. He said that anybody would have done it.

Interesting video story:

Challenge to cynics:



Lynne 07.01.15 at 8:41 pm

Harry, that is a remarkable story. Oh, the poor parents. “Remember us” indeed. Thank you for posting this. I had never heard of Nicholas Winton or all the children he saved.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© 07.01.15 at 10:38 pm

He said that anybody would have done it.

If only this were true.


Beryl 07.01.15 at 11:09 pm

A mensch.


Helen 07.01.15 at 11:54 pm

Yes, what a mensch.
Of course, here in Australia one can’t help but think had he done this today he would be described by our politicians in either of the major parties as a “people smuggler” and vilified as scum of the earth, etc. And the children would be locked up in concentration camps, marginally less deadly than Auschwitz. (If you think that’s an exaggeration, read some of the accounts of our offshore detention before it became a crime to publish them. We just kill them more slowly.) Has humankind really progressed at all?


bob mcmanus 07.02.15 at 12:08 am


Malaclypse 07.02.15 at 12:09 am

I suspect his memory will indeed be a blessing.


Tom Hurka 07.02.15 at 2:27 am

As Harry knows, my mother and her younger brother (who died serving with the RAF during the war) were on the Winton kindertransport from Prague. Their parents didn’t survive.

A great man.


iolanthe 07.02.15 at 4:45 am

I’m afraid Helen that I do think it something of an exaggeration to compare detention camps for children (which I will readily concede appear to be very unpleasant and dangerous places leading to all sorts of mental and physical health issues) with a place like Auschwitz which was established for the sole purpose of murdering millions of people. There used to be some sort of norm that you should be very sparing with holocaust comparisons, reserving them for actual acts of genocide and I wonder whether it’s time to reassert it?


Sebastian H 07.02.15 at 7:08 am

At the risk of feeding the troll….

The children saved in the various kinderstransport were typically not directly saved from the extermination camps at the time, because they were mostly saved before the extermination camps were set up. But since so many of their parents were sent to extermination camps not much later or were killed in or around ‘labor’ camps, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to say that they were saved from the Holocaust and spared the genocide visited on their relatives.


Chris Bertram 07.02.15 at 7:09 am

A true hero. When he was 100, Theresa May unveiled a statue of him at Maidenhead station. Yesterday, David Cameron praised him in the House of Commons. Those two have pursued a policy of preventing people trying to flee from persecution from doing so and, under the immigration laws as currently framed in the UK, Winton would be guilty of a serious criminal offence for doing what he did. What noxious hypocrites our politicians are, committing vile injustice now but always willing to praise those who fought it in the past, just so long as that past has receded sufficiently.


iolanthe 07.02.15 at 8:04 am

I trust I’m not “the troll” Sebastian that you aren’t feeding. I was in no way trying to suggest that the Nazi concentration camp destination of the children saved by Sir Nicholas was in some way different to or better than Auschwitz but rather to Helen’s suggestion above that the detention camps for asylym seekers currently established by the Australian Government are only “marginally less deadly than Auschwitz” which seems to be me to be over the top and offsensive. If I’ve misunderstood her then I owe her an apology but I can’t see any other plausible reading of her comment.


Watson Ladd 07.02.15 at 3:03 pm

Chris, most people fleeing from persecution can reach safety in neighboring countries, at which point they are safe. Instead they attempt to reach far-off rich countries. It’s true that the UK could take on a much greater share of the global refugee burden, as well as have a generally more open immigration policy. But it’s not the case that refugees are trapped in their home country because the UK has an obligation it doesn’t meet to take them in.

On the same page of the paper as this story the NY Times announced the last German war crimes trial had taken place. Of the millions who committed genocide, most escaped and were never tried. We have failed our obligation to seek justice for the victims.


Beryl 07.03.15 at 12:58 am

What I notice, and what is especially disheartening, about Winton, Sugihara, De Sousa ( ), Schindler and similar heroes (even Wallenberg), is that none were honoured by their countries immediately after the war and all paid a – sometimes stiff – price for their valiant efforts.


Collin Street 07.03.15 at 1:19 am

iolanthe: if the difference between “set up to kill people” and “set up to be engines of human suffering so that people stay where they are and get killed” is the hill you want to die on, that is of course your choice.

Nevertheless, I strongly suggest you drop it. If you respond I’ll take it as compelling evidence that you’re mentally incapable of permitting people to talk about things you do not wish them to talk about.


Peter T 07.03.15 at 1:47 am

“Of the millions who committed genocide, most escaped and were never tried”

It’s true that most were never tried. It’s probably not true that most escaped – a great many met summary justice at the hands of their surviving victims, the populations they had maltreated and the allied armies. Mostly undocumented except as KIA or missing, but frequently referred to in accounts of the period (US military lawyers handed camp personnel over to forced labour inmates and then walked away, the Red Army did not take SS guards prisoner and so on).

I have read a good deal around this, and what strikes me is not the many instances of revenge, but the many instances of forbearance: a deliberate refusal to take an eye for an eye. the heroism of ordinary people is often under-rated.


Collin Street 07.03.15 at 1:55 am

> the heroism of ordinary people is often under-rated.

People expect that others are like them, which means — inter alia — that the charity and the depravity of outstanding people is systematically underrated.


Warren Terra 07.03.15 at 2:51 am

@bertl, #13

none were honoured by their countries immediately after the war and all paid a – sometimes stiff – price for their valiant efforts.

Add to that list Paul Grueninger:

Following the Austrian Anschluss, Grüninger saved about 3,600 Jewish refugees by backdating their visas and falsifying other documents to indicate that they had entered Switzerland at a time when legal entry of refugees was still possible. He was dismissed from the police force, convicted of official misconduct, and fined 300 Swiss francs. He received no pension and died in poverty in 1972.

In this regard Winton got off lightly – he wasn’t punished, though he also wasn’t recognized for any decades – but it’s relevant to note that he spent his own money and committed fraud in order to save those children. Analogies to how Britain treats its refugees and their advocates today can be overblown, but it should not be forgotten that Winton had to forge British visas, and it’s fair to consider how the modern state and media would treat someone doing the same.


Harold 07.03.15 at 6:09 am

Didn’t Whittaker Chambers expose a ring of visa forgers in the 1940s? He became convinced that there was State Department involvement and started going after Alger Hiss.


Chris Bertram 07.03.15 at 6:20 am

Watson Ladd writes: “But it’s not the case that refugees are trapped in their home country because the UK has an obligation it doesn’t meet to take them in.”

The UK is one of many countries that imposes visa restrictions and carrier sanctions in order to prevent the arrival of refugees on its territory. It isn’t just one county in this respect, but part of a co-ordinated effort. Depending on the “home country” you are talking about there are often neighbouring countries which are saturated with refugees (Syrian case) or dangerous in themselves (Eritrean case). Furthermore, there is evidence that suggests that wealthy countries are offering incentives to the Eritrean regime to strengthen their border to stop people from escaping, a straightforward violation of their human rights under the UN declaration. As I said above, a person who acted to assist Syrian or Eritrean refugees today, forging papers etc to get them entry to the UK would be attacked by the establishment figures who are praising Winton and he would also face prosecution and probable imprisonment.

Colin Yeo says the necessary here:


Suzanne 07.03.15 at 7:52 am

I quite agree with regard to the hypocrisy of today’s politicians in praising Winton, but credit where credit is due:

“Britain, however, was an exception. In late 1938, it began a program, called Kindertransport, to admit unaccompanied Jewish children up to age 17 if they had a host family, with the offer of a 50-pound warranty for an eventual return ticket. The Refugee Children’s Movement in Britain sent representatives to Germany and Austria, and 10,000 Jewish children were saved before the war began.”

You’ll say it wasn’t nearly enough, and I’ll agree with you. But as far as the matter of providing refuge to persecuted Jews is concerned, Britain shows up better than my country, the U.S. If there was ever some “bygone tradition of refugee welcome,” nobody told Sumner Welles.

@9: The NYT article notes that 250 kids were on the last train out when Hitler closed the borders. Winton said that all of them likely ended up dead in the camps, I imagine sooner rather than later, since they were already separated from their families.


Chris E 07.03.15 at 10:33 am

Another thing to note was that Winton’s family was Jewish – having emigrated to Britain during the turn of the century, and had converted to Christianity in order to ‘integrate’ – presumably in large part due to the nascent anti-Semitism of the time.


Barry Freed 07.03.15 at 11:08 am

A true hero indeed. Seconding what Chris Bertram, Warren Terra, and a few others have said upthread. The others are trolls in more than just the internet sense of the word.


harry b 07.03.15 at 12:44 pm

Suzanne is right that Britain was an exception, and that just emphasizes the similarity between the regimes: One of the reasons so few Jews escaped was that countries they were not welcome elsewhere (including the US). Cameron and May should be proud that Britain was somewhat exceptional in the late 30’s and do whatever they can to emulate — and improve on — their party’s policy in the 30s.
I’d like to believe — and most of me does — that if he had sought recognition immediately after the war, he’d have got it His heroism consists in what he did. But his lack of interest in recognition is a separate, and also wonderful, part of who he was.


Tom Hurka 07.03.15 at 1:06 pm

Reading the obits I think about the decisions the parents, including my grandparents, had to make. They presumably weren’t certain what would happen in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, and in particular weren’t certain that their children would die if they stayed. And sending them away would mean at the least a long separation. And they had to make the decision very quickly. Yet they did it (though presumably some others didn’t). In retrospect it’s clear which was the right choice, but what would it have been like to have to make it then?

My mother was 18, above the age limit for the transport, but apparently she went as a chaperone for the younger kids. Did her parents have to press specially to get her included? If so, what an effort they made.


Daniel Elstein 07.03.15 at 2:22 pm

I didn’t know that about you Tom – your grandparents did make a terribly difficult and heroic decision.

In light of the comparisons made on this thread between the anti-immigration (and in practice, anti-asylum) rhetoric and policy of the current British government, and the events surrounding the Kindertransport, a few additional points.

First, the unwillingness of rich countries such as Britain to share in the global refugee burden is, then and now, intimately related to the danger faced by those who are persecuted. Chris Bertram does a good job of explaining how this works at present above; for the way it worked then, read about the Evian Conference:

Second, the coverage in the UK of Winton, and of the Kindertransport more generally, is disturbingly morally complacent and self-congratulatory. Of course it is good that the British government of the time agreed to the Kindertransport programme (and that Winton was able to take advantage of its existence to go beyond what was intended). But that government deserves little praise from us. They had refused to admit the children’s parents; and admitting the children reveals that they had a fair idea of the fate awaiting those parents (if not its exact details). This mentality, that even refugees who might otherwise very well be murdered should not be let in (with such a generous exception for children!) is poisonous, and yet unchallenged in the copious media coverage of these past events. Doubtless the reason is that to admit the serious moral failings of the past would be uncomfortable given that the same poisonous attitude is very much alive now.


Chris Bertram 07.03.15 at 3:14 pm


novakant 07.03.15 at 5:49 pm

They had refused to admit the children’s parents; and admitting the children reveals that they had a fair idea of the fate awaiting those parents (if not its exact details). This mentality, that even refugees who might otherwise very well be murdered should not be let in (with such a generous exception for children!) is poisonous, and yet unchallenged in the copious media coverage of these past events.

I have to admit I have never viewed the matter from this angle, nor was I aware of how the Evian Conference – it’s very, very depressing, but thanks!


novakant 07.03.15 at 5:49 pm

“aware of the Evian Conference”


Stephen 07.03.15 at 8:40 pm

I have read somewhere that one of the more unexpected rescuers of European Jews was General Franco. When the Germans invaded Greece, it is alleged that the Jews of Salonica (Ladinos, exiled from Spain since 1492) went to the Spanish consul, who agreed that since their ancestors had been Spanish, and they still spoke a rather old-fashioned form of Spanish, they should be regarded as Spaniards: and a telegram to Madrid had an answer saying of course they’re Spaniards, we are sending out all available blank Spanish passports by the fastest planes we can find, declare them to be Spanish citizens.

Is that true?


Bloix 07.04.15 at 12:01 pm

#10 – the bulk of the work that Winton did was to find foster parents who could and would put up 50 pounds per child (over 3000 pounds in today’s money). Obviously most people in 1938 didn’t have a spare 50 pounds and if they did they weren’t about to spend it on a stranger’s kid. The 50 pound requirement was completely unnecessary and did nothing but condemn children to death. The Americans wouldn’t allow Jewish children in at all.

In praising Winton, who is deserving of everything he received and much more, we shouldn’t lose track of the fact that his main adversaries were Western governments.


maidhc 07.05.15 at 5:33 am

Stephen: The Spanish government granted the right of citizenship to all Sephardic Jews in 1924. This was still in effect during Franco’s time, and was sporadically used to rescue some Jews from the Nazis. This was more an initiative of individual Spanish diplomats than an official policy, although after the war Franco took credit for it. The best-known case was probably Ángel Sanz Briz in Budapest, but there were several others. (Luckily Eichmann didn’t realize that most Hungarian Jews weren’t Sephardic.)

Baruch Tenenbaum, founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, mentions other Spanish diplomats who helped save Jews including Propper de Callejón and Bernardo Rolland de Miota in France, Miguel Ángel Muguiro in Budapest, José Ruíz Santaella in Berlin, José de Rojas y Moreno in Bucharest, Sebastián de Romero Radigales in Salonika, and Julio Palencia in Sophia, Bulgaria.

The Spanish government also issued documents to Jews who were being persecuted in various Arab countries after the Six Day War in 1967.


Stephen 07.05.15 at 7:53 pm

Maidhc: thanks for confirming, more or less, my cloudy memories. The moral is, I think, that one can be a fascist bastard in the service of a fascist dictator, if not the dictator himself, and still behave like a decent human being in some respects, and not at all as an anti-Semite.

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