Sir Nicholas Winton and the Kindertransport

It was very sad to hear this week, that Sir Nicholas Winton had died. He was 106.LiverpoolStStatue

Until 1938 he seemed to be just another City of London businessman with interests in Prague.

For those not in the know, although he did more good work, that’s what he was for another half century. However, his memorial is what he did in 1938-9 as the Nazis tightened their noose around Czechoslovakia and Austria. He foresaw what was barely imaginable to most ordinary people that this would result, over the years that followed, in deadly peril for all those Jews who lived in Nazi controlled territory.

It is hard for us, with hindsight, to imagine that Hitler was seen as a fairly normal national leader. So people who warned of the danger to Jews were thought to be exaggerating. Winton used his contacts to approach the British Prime Minister, Chamberlain, and eventually got agreement for this country to accept Jewish children, initially from Czechoslovakia. He organised the trains that brought them to the Hook and thence to Harwich and Liverpool St. He also arranged that families in this country would accept them and care from them. The process went on right up to the start of World War II and was extended to Austria and Poland.

Notice however, that the immigration concession was for children. It did not extend to their parents. Some of the parents, underestimating the Nazi threat, may not have wished to leave. But parents, who could have left, were not automatically accepted as refugees. Many of those who remained were ensnared by the Nazi machine and ended up in death camps. A few were lucky and escaped in other ways or managed to evade their hunters.

Although the death camps were reported at the time of their liberation, interest in them waned in the decades post-World War II. In Communist Czechoslovakia, the official narrative was to emphasize the Communist anti-Fascist struggle and to snopake out the efforts from the West. This even went as far as imprisoning returning Czech airmen who had served with the RAF.

After 1990 Czech exiles could try to reconnect with their families and Czechs in their homeland could discover what the west had done for them. Everyone could hear for the first time what the modest Nicholas Winton had done. He received several British and Czech honours, including being knighted by the Queen in 2002 and receiving the Czech Order of the White Lion in 2014. There are statues of him at stations in Maidenhead and Prague. There are memorials to the Kindertransport children at stations in Gdansk, Vienna and Prague, and at Liverpool St. in London.

The picture shows the statue in Liverpool St near the ticket office. It shows two waiting children and a suitcase, as if they had just arrived from Prague in 1938. The inscription on the plinth says, in Czech ‘for the child’. For some months last year, one of the children was missing; I never found out why, but was cheered when they were reunited.

After my son met his Czech girlfriend in 1997, I started to talk to people about Czech history. One of the things that came out of this was that I found two women whose fathers had come to England on the Kindertransport – you might call them granddaughters of the Kindertransport. One of them was someone I already knew in Harold Wood. The second was a doctor I met at a wedding we attended in Bristol.

(Kindertransport is German for children transport. Many Czech Jews were among those Czechs who spoke German as their first language; you can imagine the difficulty this could cause for some of the refugee children in the UK after 1938.)

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