Teaching World War II to children can be difficult because of its apparent bleakness. But sometimes it is the darkest of days that brings out the compassion and good in a few souls. One of the unsung heroes from World War II is Sir Nicholas Winton. His story is inspiring and a useful tool to those wishing to teach about not only the evil of the war but also the good that was done.
In the fall of 1938, many Europeans were lulled into complacency by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who thought he had pacified Adolf Hitler by handing him a large chunk of Czechoslovakia at Munich in late September. Winston Churchill, who would succeed Chamberlain in 1940, was among those who believed otherwise. So was Nicholas Winton, then a 29-year-old London stockbroker.
Having made many business trips to Germany in previous years, Winton was well aware of Jews being arrested, harassed and beaten. Hitler’s increasingly aggressive anti-Semitism and Germany’s occupation of the Sudetenland in October 1938 spurred a tide of refugees, many of whom were Jewish. Thousands fled to as-yet unoccupied Czechoslovakia, especially to Prague.
Winton canceled a year-end ski trip to Switzerland when a friend asked him to come to Prague instead to show him the refugee problem. It would have been easy to assume there was nothing a lone foreigner could do to assist so many trapped families. Winton could have ignored the situation and taken his vacation in Switzerland, stepping back into the comfortable life.
Getting all the children who sought safety to a country that would accept them seemed an impossible challenge. Back in London, he wrote to governments around the world, pleading for an open door, only to be rejected by every one (including the United States) but two: Sweden and Great Britain. He assembled a small group of volunteers to assist with the effort. Even his mother pitched in.
The London team’s counterpart in Prague was a Brit named Trevor Chadwick, who gathered information from parents who wanted their children out, then forwarded the details to Winton homes. There were 5,000 children on his lists. At no charge, British newspapers published Winton’s advertisements to stir interest and highlight the urgent need for foster parents. When enough homes could be found for a group of children, Winton submitted the necessary paperwork to the Home Office.
Winton led the effort to raise funds to pay for the operation. The expenses included the 50 British pounds the Home Office required for each child (the equivalent of $3,500 per child in today’s dollars) to cover any future costs of repatriation.
Picture the unimaginable: the railway station in Prague when anguished parents and relatives loaded the children onto the trains and said what would be for most, their final goodbyes.
The first 20 of "Winton’s children" left Prague on March 14, 1939. Hitler’s troops overran all of Czechoslovakia the very next day, but the volunteers kept working, sometimes forging documents to slip the children past the Germans. By the time World War II broke out on Sept. 1, the rescue effort had transported 669 children out of the country by rail in eight separate groups.
Vera Gissing, one of the children Winton saved, is now in her late 70s. She puts the rescue mission in perspective: "Of the 15,000 Czech Jewish children taken to the camps, only a handful survived. Winton had saved a major part of my generation of Czech Jews."
Why did he do it? It certainly was not for the plaudits it might bring him. Indeed, he never told anyone about his achievement for half a century. Not until 1988, when his wife stumbled across a musty box of records and a scrapbook while cleaning their attic, did the public learn of Winton’s story. The scrapbook, a memento put together by his volunteers when the operation shut down, was filled with documents and pictures of Czech children.
In "The Power of Good," a recent International Emmy Award-winning documentary from Czech producer Matej Minac, Winton says he kept quiet about the rescue mission because, "It was such a small part of my life." Infact, the operation spanned only eight months, while he was still working at the stock exchange, and it was prior to his marriage.
"When the war started and the transports stopped, I immediately went into the RAF (Royal Air Force), where I stayed for the next five years. When peace came, what was a 35-year-old man to do, traverse the country looking for boys and girls?" At the end of the war, Winton was busy re-starting his own life. What he did to save so many others just six years earlier was behind him, and over. For all that he knew, the children might have returned to their homeland (as some had). "Wherever they were, I had good reason to assume they were safe and cared for," he said. Indeed, among their ranks in later life would be doctors, nurses, therapists, teachers, musicians, artists, writers, pilots, ministers, scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and even a Member of the British Parliament. Today they and their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren number about 5,000.
Their story, and that of Winton, eventually was told. In 1988, a television show seen across Britain, "That’s Life," brought Winton together with many of his "children" for the first time since those horrific, fateful days of 1939. He is in regular correspondence with, and often visited by, many of them — which he says is a source of joy and comfort since his wife Grete passed away in 1999.
In cooperation with The Gelman Foundation of Ann Arbor, The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is offering copies of "The Power of Good," to teachers for $15 for use as a teaching tool in the classroom. Jan Niefert, a teacher in Kalamazoo, has found the video more beneficial than books because it brings the history alive, while it is more age appropriate for her classes than "Schindler’s List."
"We discussed the facts concerning Nazi Germany and the concentration camps, but I also lead the discussion to why only one man saw the need," Niefert said. "We also pondered at length how he could have never told his wife about it."
Benjamin D. Stafford is an economics major at Hillsdale College and was a summer 2006 intern at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Stafford met and interviewed Winton on a trip to England in July 2006.