Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Czech Kindertransport man

Sir Nicholas Winton, famous for organising the so-called Czech Kindertransport which evacuated over 600 children from Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Second World War, was born 110 years ago today. He died recently - aged 106! - and only a year earlier, his daughter had published a biography of her father, partly based on some youthful diaries of his.

Winton was born in Hampstead on 19 May 1909 to a German couple who had recently immigrated to London. In doing so they had also changed their name from Wertheim and converted from the Jewish faith to Christianity to help with their assimilation into British life. Aged 14, he started at Stowe School, which had just opened, excelling in maths, rugby and fencing. He was apprenticed to a London bank, but then worked at different banks in Hamburg, Berlin and Paris before returning to London in 1931, fluent in French and German. There, he joined the London Stock Exchange as a broker. Despite his profession, he was a committed socialist, and became close to various members of the Labour Party, and to those on the Left concerned about Nazism and opposed to appeasement.  

Shortly before the end of 1938, Winton journeyed to Prague where his friend Martin Blake was working with the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, helping refugees to flee from German occupation. Winton immediately established a Children’s Section of the committee, initially without authorisation, and began taking applications from parents, first at his hotel in Prague, and than at an office he opened. Thousands of parents lined up seeking a safe haven for their children. In London, Winton lobbied the Home Office for entry visas, but it responded slowly so he resorted to faking them. He raised money to fund transport and for the financial guarantee demanded by the British government (£50 per child). He also had to persuade The Netherlands to allow the children to transit, and to find British families willing to care for them on arrival. By day, Winton worked at his regular job, but devoted late afternoons and evenings to his rescue efforts. He is credited with saving 669 children, though he claimed many more could have been saved if other countries had followed the UK’s example.

After the outbreak of the Second World War, Winton applied successfully for registration as a conscientious objector, and later he served with the Red Cross. In 1940, he rescinded his objections and joined the Royal Air Force, at the lowest level, rising to the rank of war substantive flying officer by early 1945. After the war, Winton worked for the International Refugee Organization and then for the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Paris. There he met Grete Gjelstrup, a Danish secretary who he married in 1948. The couple settled in Maidenhead, where they brought up three children (though one died very young). In the 1983 Queen’s Birthday Honours, Winton was awarded an MBE for his work in establishing the Abbeyfield homes for the elderly in Britain.

Winton’s war rescue efforts went unnoticed for 40 years, until 1988, in fact, when Grete found a detailed scrapbook with lists of the children he’d saved. She gave the scrapbook to Elisabeth Maxwell, a Holocaust researcher (wife of media magnate Robert Maxwell), who then contacted some of the rescued children. Radio and TV exposure followed. In 2003, he was knighted in recognition of his work on the Czech Kindertransport. Winton lived until the age 106, and died in 2015. Further information is available at Wikipedia, BBC,, the National Holocaust Centre, The New York Times or The Guardian.

In the year before Winton’s death, Matador published a biography written by his daughter, Barbara Winton: If it’s Not Impossible - The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton  (a few pages can be previewed at Amazon.) Winton, himself, provided a short preface: ‘I have discovered things from reading this book that I never knew about my own family, as well as rediscovering episodes long forgotten. I had questions myself about certain incidents in my past and I have found the answers here. It’s strange to realise that Barbara knows more about my life now than I do. Having a daughter write my biography may mean that it is not unbiased, but you would have to read it to find out!’

One of Barbara Winton’s sources was a diary her father kept while at school and for a short time after. It provides, she says, ‘a fascinating glimpse’ of his school life. She refers to the diaries intermittently in the early chapters, and occasionally quotes from them. The diaries provide information, she says, on his interest in rugby and fencing, but his dislike for cricket. At the back of the diaries, he made lists of letters he had received and sent, and of books he had read. He recorded his position in class on an almost weekly basis (maths was his best subject). All the boys
, Barbara states, had to attend Officer Training Corps with a lot of marching about in uniform. Her father recorded before he started: ‘I don’t know what it will be like, I am dreading it.’ Later on, though, he described a tank demonstration as ‘ripping’ and commented, ‘I don’t think camp is so bad as I thought.’

Further diary snippets occur in Barbara Winton’s text as follows:

March 1929
‘We all went to a talkie film with the Hetheringtons. It has wonderful possibilities but I am not at all sure if it will catch on. The Americans are however making a large market by only producing these films and ceasing to produce a great number of the ordinary kind!’


Winton was involved with the setting up of the Stowe Club for Boys, also nicknamed the Pineapple Club after the pub, then defunct, where it was housed. On 28 January 1929, he noted: ‘Went to the Pineapple Club which is getting on very well. They have just had a boxing ring erected which they hope will stimulate interest in this sport! . . . At the club all went as usual. In other words both Leon and I went there with good intentions but found very little we could do especially as we have no experience of how a club should be run.’


Aged 19, Winton formed a relationship with a girl called Elizabeth. ‘Went to lunch and tea at Mr Sala’s. I danced with Elizabeth to their gramophone & Miss Anderson (her governess) did a few spiritualistic stunts in which she seems to believe.’

‘Out for tea with Eliz - I think she is pretty & certainly interesting.’

‘I went to Eliz for supper after which we went to the Empire to see one of the new talkie films. I shall be sorry to leave E as we have got very friendly in a very short time & 3 years of correspondence well - perhaps I can?’


Winton started work in a bank on 1 February 1927, and wrote in his diary, ‘BUSINESS!!’ The next day, ‘I worked very hard and feel that I am getting on well. I am beginning to understand the work. It is tedious sitting in a chair for 8 hours but work is work. Father explains all I do not understand in the evening.’


‘I had a 1/3½ lunch at Lyons. It is a cheap but dirty place and although you get served fast, one is uncomfortable.’


It is safe to say, Barbara Winton writes, looking at his diaries of 1929 and 1930 (the latter only filled in until May, and no further diaries written), ‘that he threw himself into life in Hamburg, mixing with a wide group of friends rather than a particular one or two’.

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