When this man’s wife stumbled on some old documents in the attic, she uncovered a half century old secret.
Her husband was a modest man, but his story was such an inspiring example of humanity in the face of unspeakable barbarism, that she felt it needed to be told. When you see what she found, you’ll understand why…
Up In The Attic
Clouds of dust are floating around as Grete Winton carefully treads the creaky floorboards of the attic in her home in Maidenhead, England. In the dim light, her eyes become fixed on a stack of old yellowed papers in the corner. As she looks over the contents of the documents which seem to detail hundreds of names, personal details and photographs, she uncovers an amazing secret hidden by her husband for half over a century.
Assimilating Into British Society
Her husband Nicholas Wertheimer was born in London in 1909. His parents, were Rudolph and Barbara, of German-Jewish descent. They converted to Christianity in order to assimilate into British society and even changed their family name to Winton in order to blend in further.
The newly christened Nicholas Winton, was sent to the independent Stowe School in Buckinghamshire. He later went on to have a career in international banking, and had bouts of work in Hamburg, Berlin and Paris. By the time Winton returned to the U.K. he was a fluent speaker of French and German.
Clouds Of War
In 1938 Nicolas Winton became a stockbroker. Despite his capitalist career path he was attracted to socialism and Britain’s left-of-center Labour Party. It was also around the time that the clouds of war were beginning to gather over Europe.
Adolf Hitler’s horrific abuse toward Jews in Germany was by then no secret to anyone, and one particular act made it all the more clear. It was a fateful night in November 1938 when the Nazis oversaw a series of riots and attacks against Jewish people and property. This was known as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass.
Kristallnacht saw Jewish businesses attacked, with the Nazis in Germany torching synagogues, vandalizing Jewish homes, schools and businesses and killed close to 100 Jews. These assaults forced other European governments to sit up and take notice.
Not long after that fateful night, thousands of German Jews escaped over the boarders into neighboring European countries. The U.K., for example, granted entry to any Jewish child aged 16 and under who sought refuge there.
This was known as the beginning of the Kindertransport, or “Children’s Transport.” Under the direction of Jewish groups working within the Third Reich, Jewish children were moved across Europe by train to the U.K.
Many of the children escaping had already become orphaned; others’ had parents who had been sent out to concentration camps. They were brought into the United Kingdom on the condition that their schooling and care would be paid for by charities or individual citizens.
The first refugees to arrive in December 1938 were around 200 children whose Berlin orphanage had been destroyed in the Nazi-orchestrated attacks. While the Jewish children from Germany and Austria were being rescued, those in the recently annexed Czechoslovakia were still stranded.
A Letter From A Friend
As these events were happening, Nicholas Winton was planning a skiing trip abroad. However, a letter from a friend, changed everything. Martin Blake had traveled to Czechoslovakia to help organize the movement of Jewish refugees. His message read, “I have a most interesting assignment and I need your help. Don’t bother bringing your skis.”
Taking Up A Challenge
Winton took up the challenge, and, on arrival in Czechoslovakia, he was completely shocked by the huge numbers of refugees were packed into camps. Sensing the terrible plight of the Jewish children, Winton set to work.
A Huge Task Ahead
Working out of a hotel room in Prague, Winton and his associates began the huge task of registering the names of the Jewish families that had asked for help. Their actions, however, didn’t go unnoticed.
As desperate families flocked to Winton and his colleagues for help, the Gestapo started poking around and taking an interest. Their initial enquiries were kept off with numerous bribes, but Winton knew he was working on borrowed time and had to be quick.
So, leaving his friends Bill Barazetti and Trevor Chadwick to oversee operations in Prague, Winton returned to the U.K. to make preparations ahead of the refugees’ impending arrival. His mission was about to begin.
The U.K.’s Home Office, was very slow to issue the documentation necessary for the children’s resettlement. Winton therefore subsequently felt compelled, and took it upon himself to forge the required entry permits.
Setting The Stage
By March 1939 the stage was set and for the next six months Winton and his colleagues organized the movement of children on nine trains. The dangerous route went through Nazi Germany, and after Hitler’s invasion of Poland in the September of that year, the final train sadly failed to make it through.
Making It Safely
Due to the hardworking efforts of Winton and his friends, a total of 669 Jewish children made it safely into England. On arrival, they were taken in by willing foster families.
A Life Saver
Not only did Nicolas Winton manage to save hundreds of lives from the Nazis, but he also served in Britain’s Royal Air Force during the war. In the years afterward, he went on to work for charities helping refugees and the elderly.
Sir Nicolas Winton
Winton’s heroic actions all those years ago in Czechoslovakia may well have been forgotten had his wife Grete not stumbled upon a scrapbook of pictures and documents that day in the attic. He was an incredibly modest man, and never spoke of that time, until his wife made the discovery in 1988. That same year, Nicolas Winton was honored in a surprise TV program, bringing together many of those children, now adults, whom he had rescued. He received a knighthood from the Queen in 2003. Sir Nicolas Winton lived to the ripe old age of 106, passing away only in 2015.
[Featured image credit: Chris Jackson / Staff @ Getty Images]