Nicholas Winton

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Sir Nicholas Winton
Nicholas Winton in Prague.jpg
Winton in Prague on 10 October 2007
Nicholas George Wertheim

(1909-05-19)19 May 1909
Hampstead, London, England, United Kingdom
Died1 July 2015(2015-07-01) (aged 106)
Wexham Park Hospital, Slough, Berkshire, England, United Kingdom
Other namesNicholas George Wortham [1]
Alma mater Stowe School
Years active1938–2015
Grete Gjelstrup
(m. 1948;died 1999)
Military career
AllegianceUnited Kingdom
Service/branch Royal Air Force
Years of service1940–1954
Rank Flight lieutenant
Battles/wars Second World War

Sir Nicholas George Winton MBE (born Wertheim; 19 May 1909 1 July 2015) was a British humanitarian who established an organization to rescue children at risk from Nazi Germany. Born to German-Jewish parents who had emigrated to Britain, Winton supervised the rescue of 669 children, most of them Jewish, from Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II. Winton found homes for the children and arranged for their safe passage to Britain. [2] This operation was later known as the Czech Kindertransport (German for "children's transport").

Nazi Germany The German state from 1933 to 1945, under the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler

Nazi Germany is the common English name for Germany between 1933 and 1945, when Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party (NSDAP) controlled the country through a dictatorship. Under Hitler's rule, Germany was transformed into a totalitarian state where nearly all aspects of life were controlled by the government. The official name of the state was Deutsches Reich until 1943 and Großdeutsches Reich from 1943 to 1945. Nazi Germany is also known as the Third Reich, meaning "Third Realm" or "Third Empire", the first two being the Holy Roman Empire (800–1806) and the German Empire (1871–1918). The Nazi regime ended after the Allies defeated Germany in May 1945, ending World War II in Europe.

Jewish settlers founded the Ashkenazi Jewish community in the Early and High Middle Ages. The community survived under Charlemagne, but suffered during the Crusades. Accusations of well poisoning during the Black Death (1346–53) led to mass slaughter of German Jews and they fled in large numbers to Poland. The Jewish communities of the cities of Mainz, Speyer and Worms became the center of Jewish life during Medieval times. "This was a golden age as area bishops protected the Jews resulting in increased trade and prosperity." The First Crusade began an era of persecution of Jews in Germany. Entire communities, like those of Trier, Worms, Mainz and Cologne, were murdered. The war upon the Hussite heretics became the signal for renewed persecution of Jews. The end of the 15th century was a period of religious hatred that ascribed to Jews all possible evils. The atrocities during the Khmelnytsky Uprising committed by Khmelnytskyi's Cossacks drove the Polish Jews back into western Germany. With Napoleon's fall in 1815, growing nationalism resulted in increasing repression. From August to October 1819, pogroms that came to be known as the Hep-Hep riots took place throughout Germany. During this time, many German states stripped Jews of their civil rights. As a result, many German Jews began to emigrate.

Czechoslovakia 1918–1992 country in Central Europe, predecessor of the Czech Republic and Slovakia

Czechoslovakia, or Czecho-Slovakia, was a sovereign state in Central Europe that existed from October 1918, when it declared its independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, until its peaceful dissolution into the Czech Republic and Slovakia on 1 January 1993.


His work went unnoticed by the world for over 50 years, until 1988 when he was invited to the BBC television programme That's Life!, where he was reunited with several of the children that he had saved. The British press celebrated him and dubbed him the "British Schindler". [3] In 2003, Winton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for "services to humanity, in saving Jewish children from Nazi Germany occupied Czechoslovakia". [4] On 28 October 2014, he was awarded the highest honour of the Czech Republic, the Order of the White Lion (1st class), by Czech President Miloš Zeman. He died in 2015 at the age of 106.

Oskar Schindler German industrialist and Righteous Among the Nations

Oskar Schindler was a German industrialist and a member of the Nazi Party who is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware and ammunitions factories in occupied Poland and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. He is the subject of the 1982 novel Schindler's Ark and its 1993 film adaptation, Schindler's List, which reflected his life as an opportunist initially motivated by profit, who came to show extraordinary initiative, tenacity, courage, and dedication to save the lives of his Jewish employees.

The British honours system is a means of rewarding individuals' personal bravery, achievement, or service to the United Kingdom and the British Overseas Territories. The system consists of three types of award – honours, decorations and medals:

Elizabeth II Queen of the United Kingdom and the other Commonwealth realms

Elizabeth II is Queen of the United Kingdom and the other Commonwealth realms.

Early life

Winton was born on 19 May 1909 in Hampstead, London to Jewish parents Rudolph Wertheim (18811937), a bank manager, and his wife Barbara (née Wertheimer, 18881978), as the middle-born of their three children. His elder sister was Charlotte (1908–2001) and the younger brother, Robert (1914–2009). [5] [6] [7] [ page needed ] His parents were German Jews who had moved to London two years earlier. [8] The family name was Wertheim, but they changed it to Winton in an effort at integration. [9] They also converted to Christianity, and Winton was baptised. [10]

Hampstead area of north London, England

Hampstead, commonly known as Hampstead Village, is an area of London, England, 4 miles (6.4 km) northwest of Charing Cross. Part of the London Borough of Camden, it is known for its intellectual, liberal, artistic, musical and literary associations and for Hampstead Heath, a large, hilly expanse of parkland. It has some of the most expensive housing in the London area. The village of Hampstead has more millionaires within its boundaries than any other area of the United Kingdom.

Jews ancient nation and ethnoreligious group from the Levant

Jews or Jewish people are an ethnoreligious group and a nation, originating from the Israelites and Hebrews of historical Israel and Judah. Jewish ethnicity, nationhood, and religion are strongly interrelated, as Judaism is the ethnic religion of the Jewish people, while its observance varies from strict observance to complete nonobservance.

In 1923, Winton entered Stowe School, which had just opened. [11] He left without qualifications, attending night school while volunteering at the Midland Bank. He then went to Hamburg, where he worked at Behrens Bank, followed by Wasserman Bank in Berlin. [8] In 1931, he moved to France and worked for the Banque Nationale de Crédit in Paris. He also earned a banking qualification in France. Returning to London, he became a broker at the London Stock Exchange. Though a stockbroker, Winton was also "an ardent socialist who became close to Labour Party luminaries Aneurin Bevan, Jennie Lee and Tom Driberg." [12] Through another socialist friend, Martin Blake, Winton became part of a left-wing circle opposed to appeasement and concerned about the dangers posed by the Nazis. [12]

Stowe School independent school in Stowe, Buckinghamshire, England

Stowe School is a selective independent school in Stowe, Buckinghamshire. It was opened on 11 May 1923, initially with 99 schoolboys, and with J. F. Roxburgh as the first headmaster. The school is a member of the Rugby Group, the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, and the G20 Schools' Group. Originally for boys only, the school is now coeducational, with some 550 boys and 220 girls.

Midland Bank Plc was one of the Big Four banking groups in the United Kingdom for most of the 20th century. It is now part of HSBC. The bank was founded as the Birmingham and Midland Bank in Union Street, Birmingham, England in August 1836. It expanded in the Midlands, absorbing many local banks, and merged with the Central Bank of London Ltd. in 1891, becoming the London City and Midland Bank.

Hamburg City in Germany

Hamburg is the second-largest city in Germany with a population of over 1.8 million, after the capital Berlin.

At school, he had become an outstanding fencer and he was selected for the British team in 1938. He had hoped to compete in the next Olympics, but the games were cancelled because of the war. [13]

Fencing sport

Fencing is a group of three related combat sports. The three disciplines in modern fencing are the foil, the épée, and the sabre; winning points are made through the contact with an opponent. A fourth discipline, singlestick, appeared in the 1904 Olympics but was dropped after that, and is not a part of modern fencing. Fencing was one of the first sports to be played in the Olympics. Based on the traditional skills of swordsmanship, the modern sport arose at the end of the 19th century, with the Italian school having modified the historical European martial art of classical fencing, and the French school later refining the Italian system. There are three forms of modern fencing, each of which uses a different kind of weapon and has different rules; thus the sport itself is divided into three competitive scenes: foil, épée, and sabre. Most competitive fencers choose to specialize in one weapon only.

The British Fencing Association (BFA), often referred to as British Fencing, is the national governing body (NGB) for the Olympic sport of Fencing in the British Isles.

1940 Summer Olympics 12th edition of the modern Summer Olympics, scheduled in Tokyo in 1940, rescheduled in Helsinki, and later canceled due to World War II

The 1940 Summer Olympics, officially known as the Games of the XII Olympiad, were originally scheduled to be held from September 21 to October 6, 1940, in Tokyo, Japan. They were rescheduled for Helsinki, Finland, to be held from July 20 to August 4, 1940, but were ultimately cancelled due to the outbreak of World War II. Helsinki eventually hosted the 1952 Summer Olympics and Tokyo the 1964 Summer Olympics.

Rescue work

Jewish children leave Prague for Britain. Winton appears towards the end of the video, wearing glasses.

Shortly before Christmas 1938, Winton was planning to travel to Switzerland for a skiing holiday. He decided instead to visit Prague and help Martin Blake, [8] who was in Prague as an associate of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, [14] then in the process of being occupied by Germany, and had called Winton to ask him to assist in Jewish welfare work. [15] Winton 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 hotel in Wenceslas Square. [16] In November 1938, following Kristallnacht in Nazi-ruled Germany, the House of Commons approved a measure to allow 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. [17]

Switzerland federal republic in Central Europe

Switzerland, officially the Swiss Confederation, is a sovereign state situated in the confluence of western, central, and southern Europe. It is a federal republic composed of 26 cantons, with federal authorities seated in Bern. Switzerland is a landlocked country bordered by Italy to the south, France to the west, Germany to the north, and Austria and Liechtenstein to the east. It is geographically divided between the Alps, the Swiss Plateau and the Jura, spanning a total area of 41,285 km2 (15,940 sq mi). While the Alps occupy the greater part of the territory, the Swiss population of approximately 8.5 million is concentrated mostly on the plateau, where the largest cities are located, among them the two global cities and economic centres of Zürich and Geneva.

Prague Capital city of the Czech Republic

Prague is the capital and largest city in the Czech Republic, the 14th largest city in the European Union and the historical capital of Bohemia. Situated in the north-west of the country on the Vltava river, the city is home to about 1.3 million people, while its metropolitan area is estimated to have a population of 2.6 million. The city has a temperate climate, with warm summers and chilly winters.

The German occupation of Czechoslovakia (1938–1945) began with the German annexation of Czechoslovakia's border regions known collectively as the Sudetenland, under terms outlined by the Munich Agreement. German leader Adolf Hitler's pretext for this action was the alleged privations suffered by the ethnic German population living in those regions. New and extensive Czechoslovak border fortifications were also located in the same area.

The Netherlands

An important obstacle was getting official permission to cross into the Netherlands, as the children were to embark on the ferry at Hook of Holland. After Kristallnacht in November 1938, the Dutch government officially closed its borders to any Jewish refugees. The border guards, marechaussees , searched for them and returned any found to Germany, despite the horrors of Kristallnacht being well known. [18]

Winton succeeded, thanks to the guarantees he had obtained from Britain. After the first train, the process of crossing the Netherlands went smoothly. [19] Winton ultimately found homes in Britain for 669 children, [20] [ page needed ] many of whose parents would perish in the Auschwitz concentration camp. [21] His mother worked with him to place the children in homes and later hostels. [22] [ page needed ] Throughout the summer of 1939, he placed photographs of the children in Picture Post seeking families to accept them. [23]

He also wrote to US politicians such as Roosevelt, asking them to take more children. [23] He said that two thousand more might have been saved if they had helped, but only Sweden took any besides those sent to Britain. [13] [23] The last group of 250, scheduled to leave Prague on 1 September 1939, were unable to depart. With Hitler's invasion of Poland on the same day, the Second World War had begun. [15] [21] Of the children due to leave on that train, only two survived the war. [24] [25] [26]

Winton acknowledged the vital roles in Prague of Doreen Warriner, Trevor Chadwick, [27] Nicholas Stopford, [28] Beatrice Wellington (born 15 June 1907), [29] Josephine Pike, and Bill Barazetti (1914–2000) [30] who also worked to evacuate children from Europe. Winton was in Prague for only about three weeks before the Nazis occupied the country. [31] He never set foot in Prague Station. As he later wrote, "Chadwick did the more difficult and dangerous work after the Nazis invaded... he deserves all praise". [27] [ page needed ]

Notable people saved

Of the 669 children saved from the Holocaust through Winton's efforts, more than 370 have never been traced. BBC News suggested in 2015 that they may not know the full story of how they survived the war. [32]

Second World War

After the outbreak of the World War II, Winton applied successfully for registration as a conscientious objector and later served with the Red Cross. [37] In 1940, he rescinded his objections and joined the Royal Air Force, Administrative and Special Duties Branch. He was an aircraftman, rising to sergeant by the time he was commissioned on 22 June 1944 as an acting pilot officer on probation. [38]

On 17 August 1944, he was promoted to pilot officer on probation. [39] He was promoted to the rank of war substantive flying officer on 17 February 1945. [40] He relinquished his commission on 19 May 1954, retaining the honorary rank of flight lieutenant. [41]


Winton visiting Prague in October 2007 Winton students 4657.JPG
Winton visiting Prague in October 2007

Family life

After the war, Winton worked for the International Refugee Organization and then the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Paris, where he met Grete Gjelstrup, a Danish secretary and accountant's daughter. [5] [12] They married in her hometown of Vejle on 31 October 1948. [5] The couple settled in Maidenhead, England, where they brought up their three children: Nick (born 1951), Barbara (born 1954) and the youngest Robin (1956–62), who was born with Down syndrome.

The family insisted that Robin stay with them rather than be sent to a residential home. Robin's death from meningitis, the day before his sixth birthday, affected Winton greatly and he founded a local support organisation which became Maidenhead Mencap. Winton stood, unsuccessfully, for the town council in 1954; [12] he later found work in the finance departments of various companies. [12]


It has been reported that Winton suppressed his humanitarian exploits for many years; however, he mentioned them in his election material while unsuccessfully standing for election to the Maidenhead town council in 1954. [42] [43] [44] His rescue achievements went unnoticed for half a century [45] until in 1988 his wife found a detailed scrapbook in their attic, [46] containing lists of the children, including their parents' names and the names and addresses of the families that took them in. She gave the scrapbook to Elisabeth Maxwell, a Holocaust researcher and wife of media magnate Robert Maxwell. [42] [46] Winton himself could not remember the reason why this was done. [42] Letters were sent to each of these known addresses and 80 of "Winton's children" were found in Britain. [46]

In an interview on BBC radio program The Life Scientific, Simon Wessely described how his father Rudi, one of the rescued children, had a chance encounter with Winton. [47]

The wider world found out about his work in February 1988 [42] during an episode of the BBC television programme That's Life! [48] when he was invited as a member of the audience. At one point, Winton's scrapbook was shown and his achievements were explained. The host of the programme, Esther Rantzen, asked whether anybody in the audience owed their lives to Winton, and if so, to stand – more than two dozen people surrounding Winton rose and applauded. [49]

100th birthday

To celebrate his 100th birthday, Winton flew over the White Waltham Airfield in a microlight piloted by Judy Leden, the daughter of one of the boys he saved. [50] His birthday was also marked by the publication of a profile in The Jewish Chronicle . [51]


Commemorative event, in July 2015, at the Prague Main Railway Station sculpture Sir Winton Memorial 2015.JPG
Commemorative event, in July 2015, at the Prague Main Railway Station sculpture

Winton died in his sleep on the morning of 1 July 2015 at Wexham Park Hospital in Slough from cardio-respiratory failure, having been admitted a week earlier following a deterioration in his health. He was 106 years old. [52] [53] [54] [55]

Winton's death came 76 years to the day after 241 of the children he saved left Prague on a train. [52] A special report from the BBC News on several of the children whom Winton rescued during the war had been published earlier that day. [32]


In the 1983 Queen's Birthday Honours, Winton was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his work in establishing the Abbeyfield homes for the elderly in Britain, and in the 2003 New Year Honours, he was knighted in recognition of his work on the Czech Kindertransport. [4] [21] [56] [57] He met the Queen again during her state visit to Bratislava, Slovakia, in October 2008. [58] In 2003, Winton received the Pride of Britain Award for Lifetime Achievement. [59] In 2010, Winton was named a British Hero of the Holocaust by the British Government. [60]

Winton was awarded the Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Fourth Class, by the Czech President Václav Havel in 1998. [61] In 2008, he was honoured by the Czech government in several ways. An elementary school in Kunžak is named after him, [62] and he was awarded the Cross of Merit of the Minister of Defence, Grade I. [62] The Czech government nominated him for the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize. [62] [63]

The minor planet 19384 Winton was named in his honour by Czech astronomers Jana Tichá and Miloš Tichý. [64]

Statue at Prague main railway station, by Flor Kent, unveiled on 1 September 2009 Wintons Prague memorial by Flor Kent - 1.jpg
Statue at Prague main railway station, by Flor Kent, unveiled on 1 September 2009

A statue of Winton stands on Platform 1 of the Praha hlavní nádraží railway station. [65] Created by Flor Kent, it was unveiled on 1 September 2009 as part of a larger commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the last Kindertransport train (see also Winton train, below). [66]

There are also three memorials at Liverpool Street Station in London, where the Kindertransport children arrived. [67] In September 2010, another statue of Winton was unveiled, this time at Maidenhead railway station by Home Secretary Theresa May, MP for Maidenhead. Created by Lydia Karpinska, it depicts Winton sitting on a bench and reading a book. [3]

Winton was baptised as a Christian by his parents, but his Jewish ancestry disqualified him from being declared a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Israel. [68] As an adult, he was not active in any particular religion. [69] In a 2015 interview, Winton told Stephen Sackur he had become disillusioned with religion during the war as he could not reconcile religious movements "praying for victory on both sides of the same war". Winton went on to describe his personal beliefs: "I believe in ethics, and if everybody believed in ethics we'd have no problems at all. That's the only way out; forget the religious side." [70]

Winton received the Wallenberg Medal on 27 June 2013 in London. [24] The following year, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation established a literary competition named after Winton. The contest is for essays by high school students about Winton's legacy. [71]

Winton was awarded the Freedom of the City of London on 23 February 2015. [72]

Winton train

The headboard worn by No. 60163 Tornado from Harwich to Liverpool Street station, the final leg of the Winton Train from Prague Winton-Train-Headboard-London-Liverpool-St-Stn-20090904.jpg
The headboard worn by No. 60163 Tornado from Harwich to Liverpool Street station, the final leg of the Winton Train from Prague

On 1 September 2009, a special "Winton Train" composed of one or two steam locomotives (out of a set of six) and carriages used in the 1930s set off from the Prague Main railway station for London via the original Kindertransport route. On board were several surviving "Winton children" and their descendants, who were welcomed by Winton in London.

The occasion marked the 70th anniversary of the intended last Kindertransport arranged by Winton, due to set off on 1 September 1939 but prevented by the outbreak of the Second World War that very day. [73] At the train's departure, a memorial statue for Winton, designed by Flor Kent, was unveiled at the railway station. [74]

Order of the White Lion

On 19 May 2014, Winton's 105th birthday, it was announced he was to receive the Czech Republic's highest honour, for giving Czech children "the greatest possible gift: the chance to live and to be free". [75] On 28 October 2014, Winton was awarded the Order of the White Lion (Class I) by Czech President Miloš Zeman, [76] the Czech Defence Ministry having sent a special aircraft to bring him to Prague. The award was made alongside one to Sir Winston Churchill, which was accepted by his grandson Nicholas Soames. Zeman said he regretted the highest Czech award having been awarded to the two personalities so belatedly, but added "better late than never". [77] Winton was also able to meet some of the people he rescued 75 years earlier, themselves then in their 80s. He said, "I want to thank you all for this enormous expression of thanks for something which happened to me nearly 100 years ago—and a 100 years is a heck of a long time. I am delighted that so many of the children are still about and are here to thank me." [75] [78]

Winton's work is the subject of three films by Slovak filmmaker Matej Mináč : the drama All My Loved Ones (1999), [79] in which Winton was played by Rupert Graves, the documentary The Power of Good: Nicholas Winton (Síla lidskosti—Nicholas Winton, 2002), which won an Emmy Award, [80] and the documentary drama Nicky's Family (Nickyho rodina, 2011). A play about Winton, Numbers from Prague, was performed in Cambridge in January 2011. [81] [82] Winton is featured in the 2000 Warner Brothers documentary written and directed by Mark Jonathan Harris and produced by Deborah Oppenheimer, Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport , which received the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and the film's accompanying book of the same name.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, on 28 October 2014, Winton said he thought he had "made a difference to a lot of people" and went on to say, "I don't think we've learned anything… the world today is in a more dangerous situation than it has ever been." [83]


On 22 April 2016, a remembrance quarter peal was rung and a new method named Sir Nicholas Winton Delight by bellringers of the Whiting Society of Ringers. [84]

On 19 May 2016, a memorial service for Winton was held at London's Guildhall, attended by some 400 people, including 28 of those he saved, and Czech, Slovak and UK government representatives. [85]

On 20 May 2016, military charity Glen Art presented a memorial concert celebrating Winton's life with Jason Isaacs, Rupert Graves and Alexander Baillie, at St John's, Smith Square. All funds donated were given to charities supporting Syrian refugee children. [86] [87] [88]

On 14 July 2017, a memorial garden for Winton was opened in Maidenhead Oaken Grove park by PM Theresa May. [89]

There is a stained glass memorial in the garden of the Grand Synagogue, Budapest, Hungary.

See also

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Further reading

Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Maria Gunnoe
Wallenberg Medalist
Succeeded by
Ágnes Heller