Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Sir Nicholas Winton (1909-2015) was a British stockbroker who organized the rescue of 669 children, 561 of them Jewish, from Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II in an operation known as the Czech Kindertransport. Though he was only a young man of 29 at the time and though his rescue effort took place during a period of mere months, it proved critical for the hundreds of children whose lives were saved, including notably Yitzchak Tuvia Weiss, who later became the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, and former secretary of state Madeline Albright’s cousin, Dagmar Simova.

Perhaps nothing better summarizes Sir Nicholas’s heroism during the Holocaust than the September 12, 1994 letter, exhibited here and autographed by Sir Nicholas himself, written to him by a deeply appreciative Ezer Weizman, who was then president of Israel:

Not many of us can look back on saving hundreds of human lives almost single-handedly. And special, even historic significance is attached to that achievement when those saved were threatened by the vast war machine of the hostile Nazi regime. In the darkness enveloping Europe in 1939, your selfless dedication to the salvation of children in Prague shines out.

A half century later, 664 adults throughout the world, many of them in Israel, know the years they have lived since 1939 were your gift to them – the gift of the young Englishman who took it upon himself to arrange for their admittance to England and all the myriad details involved in transporting them there between March and April 1939. There are volumes in the simple fact that an additional transport organized for hundreds of children to leave on September 1 was cancelled with the start of the war and not a single child survived.

In remembering your role and thanking you for what you did I speak for all of us in Israel who cherish the tiny remnant of our people that were saved out of mass death and helped to build a new life for themselves and others. Your name is written large on that page of history.

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Sir Nicholas’s parents were wealthy German Jews who a few years before his birth moved to London where they converted to Christianity, changed their family name from Wertheimer to gain broader acceptance into English society, and baptized their son in the Anglican Church. He insisted that his Jewish roots played no role whatsoever in his rescue operations; interestingly, though, his Jewish genealogy disqualified him from being declared one of the Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Israel. Though baptized, he renounced all religion, describing his personal beliefs as ethical: “If everybody believed in ethics we’d have no problems at all. That’s the only way out; forget the religious side.”

After holding a number of banking positions in Hamburg, Berlin, and Paris, Winton returned to London, where he became a broker at the London Stock Exchange. He also became actively involved in various socialist groups concerned about the Nazi threat and opposed to Britain’s policy of appeasing Hitler.

In December 1938, Winton cancelled a planned ski vacation to accept an invitation to come to Prague to assist Martin Blake, an associate of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, in Jewish welfare work. Many Jews had fled to Prague seeking refuge, particularly after the Munich Agreement transferred the Sudetenland to Germany. Following Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938), the House of Commons had approved a measure to allow refugee children into Britain, but subject to three conditions: they had to be younger than 17; they had to have a place to stay pre-arranged for them; and a bond of fifty British pounds had to be deposited to pay for the eventual return of each child to his own country. Yet, as Winton quickly realized after visiting several refugee camps, though some in Britain were working to rescue academics and professionals, no one was trying to save the children. He therefore set up his office in his hotel and single-handedly established an organization to aid children at risk from the Nazis. As word spread, thousands of desperate Jewish parents, knowing that time was short before the impending Nazi invasion, besieged the hotel to try to persuade him to put their children on the transport list.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.