Kindertransport and Sir Nicholas Winton

Sir Nicholas Winton, at age 28, was a young stock-broker who went to Prague at the request of a friend who was working in the British Embassy, delaying the Swiss ski vacation he had originally planned.

World War 2 had not yet officially been announced, but Nazi Germany had already begun conquering neighboring countries and annexing territories long disputed.

His friend showed him the desperate plight that the fleeing Jews were in, with no-one helping them escape to safe countries.

In 1939, Britain, at the behest of Jewish and Quaker groups was slowly beginning the Kinderstransport Program, whereby Britain allowed the entrance of Jewish children if they were unaccompanied and under age 17, and each had to have a bequest made of the equivalent of $4,000 for them to be sent “home”, when it “was all over”. Other than allowing them to come to Britain, the British government made it tough and did nothing to help. But, about 10,000 Jewish children were safely sent to Britain in this program, while 1.5 million Jewish children were left to perish in the Holocaust. The only other nation to participate in Kindertransport was neutral Sweden, which also accepted all the fleeing Danish Jews, which the Danish government orchestrated, whereas the Dutch let most of their Jews die.

The 10,000 saved by Britain was more than the Americans did. A similar, much less formal effort, known as the “One Thousand Children,” transported mostly unaccompanied Jewish children to the United States between November 1934 and May 1945. The Wagner-Rogers Bill to admit 20,000 Jewish refugees under the age of 14 to the United States from Nazi Germany, which was co-sponsored by Sen. Robert F. Wagner (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Edith Rogers (R-Mass.), failed to get Congressional approval in February 1939 — that was the true “Day of Infamy” and the Congress didn’t change the situation after their plight and their parent’s plight was truly desperate.

That’s why Sir Nicholas Winton’s solitary actions are all the more laudatory.

Nicholas saw no-one was helping the Czech Jewish children; all the Kindertransport efforts were in Northern Europe. So, he singularly stepped in and saved hundreds of Czechoslovakian Jewish children from death in Nazi concentration camps (like Auschwitz, nearby) by personally paying for 8 successful train loads of Jewish children who went 3 days travel directly from Prague to London and for 1 unsuccessful train, which was stopped by the Nazis in Prague, unfortunately, on the day which Britain chose to declare war on Germany.

For almost seven decades, Sir Nicholas Winton has prayed daily for the children on the unsuccessful train — who were so cruelly left behind — those destined to die in the gas chambers or the squalid concentration camp surgeries, as the victims of grotesque experiments by Nazi “doctors” like Joseph Mengele.

“I think of them all the time,” Sir Nicholas says softly.

“Two hundred of them, crowded into the carriages of the train that should have brought them to safety in England. They haunt me. Their bewilderment when it was delayed. Their terror when, hours later, the trains set off, this time to the death camps. Their tears for their mothers. Did they feel they had been betrayed? Did the older ones, perhaps, suspect their fate? If only I could have saved them all.”

He saved about 700 Jewish children, skirting all the various governments’ rigmarole along the route, including the British strictures, at the time. Jumping through all the bureaucratic hoops, it was a miracle he was able to save nearly 700 Jewish children, but he still grieves for the 200 lost on the captured train, even now.

In an extraordinary, personal, one-man operation which was first run from just a Prague hotel room and then from London, Sir Nicholas raised money and found foster families for each child. He fought British bureaucracy, campaigned tirelessly and even forged British Home Office permits to rescue the refugee children, and finally he organized 8 successful trains to cross from Czechoslovakia through Nazi Germany all the way to Liverpool Street Station in London.

He accomplished all this in the six months between March and September 1939.

As it was, the Kindertransport effort which saved more European Jewish children at the 11th hour, only happened when other groups put pressure on the British Government to do “something”!

Kindertransport (Children’s Transport), was a series of rescue efforts which brought thousands of refugee Jewish children to Great Britain from Nazi Germany between 1938 and 1940. The British government eased immigration restrictions for certain categories of Jewish refugees — namely, Jewish children under age 17. They were allowed to enter Great Britain from Germany and German-annexed territories (namely, Austria and the Czech lands).

The British government did nothing else to help. This caused much delay as private citizens or organizations had to guarantee to pay for each child’s care, education, and eventual emigration from Britain.

In return for this guarantee, the British government only agreed to allow unaccompanied refugee children to enter the country on temporary travel visas, but that was huge, and saved many children.

At the time, it was understood that when the “crisis was over,” the children would return to their families. Parents or guardians could not accompany the children, and the prohibition against adults meant that the few infants included in the program were tended by other, older children on their transport.

The last transport trains from Germany and Prague left September 1, 1939, just as World War II began, while the last transport from the Netherlands left for Britain on May 14, 1940, the day on which the Dutch army surrendered to German forces.

In all, the Kindertransport rescue operation brought 9,000 – 10,000 children, about 7,500 of them Jewish, from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland to Great Britain. Sir Nicholas single-handedly brought nearly 700 of that 7,500.

Jews, Quakers and Christians of many denominations worked together to bring refugee children to Britain, and about half of the children lived with foster families. The others stayed in youth hostels, schools or on farms throughout Great Britain.

In 1940, incredibly, British authorities interned about 1,000 children from the childrens’ transport program, as enemy aliens, on the Isle of Man and in other internment camps in Canada and Australia!

Despite their classification as “enemy aliens”, at least some of the older boys from the childrens’ transport program later joined the British army and fought in the war against Germany.

After the war, many children from the Kinderstranport program became citizens of Great Britain, or they emigrated to Israel, the United States, Canada, and Australia. Most of these children never saw their parents again as they had been murdered during the Holocaust.

Those Jewish children brought to Britain by Sir Nicholas Winton were again blessed, as he worked tirelessly to find them permanent families to grow up with after the War, when their parents were shown to have perished.

And, the Kindertransport plan also was possibly the seed for the idea to move British children away from the cities the Germans were constantly bombing during the Blitz. Sending pregnant women and British children to the remote parts of the Kingdom saved many British childrens’ lives, too.

Sir Nicolas Winton, like many other saviors, was a humble man who was just trying to do “the right thing”, and like many of the others he also kept the details of his effort secret for decades. He still does not think he did anything heroic.

His family only learned of his actions 20 years ago, when his wife found letters in their attic that detailed the arrangements and listed the children and showed their photographs; only then, did he tell his family.

In researching Sir Nicholas, I was gratified to find out that the Czechs and Slovakians are making great strides to permanently stop this cycle of anti-semitism. I wish the rest of western Europe would actively do so, too, especially in France, Holland, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Germany and Russia where the worst denial and culpabilty happened. In most of these countries there is still a strong under-current of antisemitism.

REFERENCE:
Kindertransport survivors
Kindertransport – Into the Arms of Strangers

Sir Nicholas Winton – Holocaust Hero

Kindertransport – Saving Jewish Children
Evacuating British Children in WW2
“Our Class” – National Theatre, London

Please also read:
London Hero – Holocaust Heroes
and
London Hero and “Our Class” National Theatre, London

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