In an attic , in a scrapbook would be found that would reveal a piece of history hidden for fifty years and begin an incredible Chain of events.
This is the story of Sir Nicholas Winton MBE whose actions were almost lost in the murkiness of time,but thanks to that chance discovery are remembered and celebrated in this BBC Documentary.
Nicholas himself is not one for looking back, he has strong beliefs
“ I think there is much to much Harping in the past, quite frankly I don’t see the point in all that, we have never learnt anything from the past. The future lies in forgetting the past not remembering it.”
I am not sure I quite agree, his story has the most resounding resonance and even today the actions he took are relevant to common issues borne of conflict zones such as The Middle East and Africa and there is no disputing the lasting impact they had on the children he saved. One of whom is Joe Schlesinger who takes up the story.
It all begins of course from the actions of Adolf Hitler whose fear and hatred for anything Foreign meant that the lives of millions of Jews, Gypsies and Slavs would be snuffed out. His rhetoric spread throughout the populace. The programme cites a 7 year old girl slapped repeatedly around the face by a classmate because her father had told her to. A four year old boy whose head laceration needed stitches, but was refused them for being a Jew. Children were the victims of prejudice born of Hitler’s paranoia of difference.
When The Germans took the disputed Czechoslovakian territory of the Sudetenland, the Czechs expected their allies in west to act. Sadly in Munich, Britain and France agreed to turn a blind eye in what Joe calls “cowardly” appeasement. So began a period of terror for Czech Jews that would spread across Europe like a rampant Virus. Britain’s weak response to the German actions meant many were not aware of the Growing threat.
It was pure chance then, that in Dec 1938, a Twenty nine year old British Stockbroker would get a call that would change his and innumerable other’s lives forever. Living a comfortable, arguably privileged life, Nicholas Winton liked to sail, ski and travel.That Christmas he was due to go to Switzerland to ski, but his travelling companion called off saying he was helping with the Refugee Crisis in Czechoslovakia.”Nicky” went to find out for himself what was really going on.
He went around the camps, where the appalling conditions shocked him. People living in daily fear of a German invasion were living in lean to huts with tiny stoves in the midst of a Czech winter. One man remembers a plethora of small camp fires and being given something hot to drink.
Whilst in Prague he was given sight of a map that showed Nazi ambitions to move into France and the rest of Europe. This troubled Nicholas and his concern began to filter back to parents of children in the refugee camps who appeared En masse at his Hotel door the following morning. He realised that he could at least attempt to help the Children of these displaced souls and so he spoke to the authorities who told him that moving the children would be nigh on impossible if they were to travel alone and who would take them in?
Not to be thwarted he began writing a plethora of letters, going right to the most powerful seat he could think of, President Franklin Roosevelt. The reply he got back was from the US Embassy in London stating the US government was unable to allow any more immigration beyond the limits set by existing laws.
Not to be deterred, sat in a Café daily , people would come to ask that their children be included on the lists of youngsters hoping to get to Out of the country .Roping in some willing friends a list began to form of considerable length.
The German authorities began to hear of this Englishman causing minor ripples and decided he needed to be investigated; so enlisted the oldest spy trick in the book, an alluring woman to gather intelligence about his plans.
Kirsten and Nicholas met as if by chance and she claimed to be the Prague Representative of the Swedish Red Cross. Friends warned his she was a spy, but Lo and behold, she actually managed to get twenty five children out of the country. Escorting them herself, she vanished without trace, but it had been a success!
The numbers of vulnerable children was growing and he had around 2000 photos and names. Egress via official channels to the USA , Britain and Palestine was proving impossible as boundaries had been firmly shut. People queued at consulates across the city to gain access to places as obscure and foreign to Czechs as Uruguay. Then to make matters worse, stock exchange bosses, who did not see the value in the work he was doing called Nicholas to berate him and to call him home, but Nicholas defied the negative and inhuman attitudes of his money obsessed superiors and remained in Prague.
The children kept coming, queuing to be registered, but so did the Germans.
When a German Officer came to ask who the Jewish Students were, two little girls raised their hands and were told to sit at the back of the room. Once he had gone, the Headmaster came in and told the class that the back seats were now the seats of highest honour!
Nicholas Winton sent entreaties out to countries across the globe to take in these poor dispossessed children and ONLY Great Britain responded.
“ The Rest of the World closed it’s Eyes, Ears, Heart and Gates!”
From a modest home on Hampstead Heath in London, Nicholas Winton began the gargantuan task to get the Germans to let the children on his lists come over to Britain, ensure the Home Office to let them in, to find British Families willing to house them and to find the sizeable amount of money required to finance the whole thing!
The main stumbling block people thought might be a problem, simply wasn’t The Home Office were actually happy for Children to come to Britain without parents, but they put in some stipulations that a family must be found until “The Emergency was over” and a cash guarantor for each child must be found at a price of £50 each. A huge amount for 1938!
So Nicholas and a Secretary went to work from the humble surrounds of Hampstead, with just rubber stamps and Notepaper they ultimately had a visit from the Police to ask why they were getting so much correspondence from Czechoslovakia. Things were getting very Serious and the news from Prague was Grave.
Some of the “Children” gave their personal testimonies
Children were being forced out of society. Leaving school, unable to go to the cinema or the Opera.
The Nazis had begun collecting Jews and arresting “Wanted Persons”
Suicides were not uncommon and one lady lost her Aunt and Uncle in this way.
Four synagogues were burned to the ground.
With all the photos Nicholas starts his charm offensive, putting them wherever they will be seen by good hearted families who might take children in. Gradually by grouping photos together and getting local people to vet the families in all the far flung corners of the Country children began to be accepted and the heartbreaking task of farewells began.
Sometimes fake papers and Passports were necessary to speed the process. None of the child entrants were illegal, just expedited to get past German Authority scrutiny. The Germans would cancel the Transport without more money to grease the wheels. The money had to be found somehow. It must have taken steely resolve and immense courage to allow one’s children to go to another country to be looked after by strangers.
Every child was given a number tag to wear on the crossing and the journey was fraught with tension and fear, particularly when the trains travelled through Germany. The sight of massive swastikas and Hitler portraits must have been Chilling and and frightening as soldiers boarded the trains to check the carriages.
Finally however, the children reached the channel.
Come back tommorrow to discover more about the amazing man Nicholas Winton and to read my assessment of what we should take away from the actions of this man whose very existence was shrouded from public knowledge for so long and how it might relate to our understanding of current world events.