By Robin Jacobson.
On a London train platform in the late 1930s, future children’s author Michael Bond noticed a sad huddle of Jewish refugee children with identity tags dangling from their necks. These vulnerable children inspired his beloved fictional character, Paddington, a young refugee bear who alights at Paddington Station wearing a tag with the poignant plea, “Please Look After This Bear.”
The Jewish children that touched Bond’s heart came to London through the Kindertransport (Children’s Transport), a series of rescue efforts that brought 10,000 children, mostly Jewish, to Great Britain from Nazi-occupied countries between 1938 and 1940. One of the most effective rescuers was Nicholas (“Nicky”) Winton (1909-2015), who masterminded the Czechoslovakian Kindertransport. This conveyed 669 children from Czechoslovakia to Great Britain, saving them from later deportation to concentration camps. “Nicky’s children” and their descendants (6,000 people at last count) owe their lives to Winton. His heroic mission is described in multiple books and films (see sidebar).
Locally, Nicholas Winton’s lifesaving work will be honored on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) at Adas Israel’s annual Garden of the Righteous program. Winton’s dedication to endangered children sets a stirring example today, in our current child refugee crisis, with more children fleeing dangerous homelands than at any time since World War II.
In December 1938, Nicholas Winton, a 29-year-old British stockbroker, was packing for a skiing vacation in Switzerland with his friend Martin Blake. Then Blake telephoned asking Winton to come to Prague instead.
In Prague, Blake took Winton to refugee camps which sheltered Jews and other refugees who had fled Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, recently annexed by Germany. Blake, a volunteer assisting the refugees, hoped that Winton might volunteer too.
Winton was particularly struck by the perilous situation of the children, both within and outside the camps. Desperate parents begged him to help get their little ones to Britain. Springing into action, Winton obtained the British government’s permission for Czechoslovakian children to enter Britain as part of the Kindertransport program already in place for children from Germany and Austria. However, Winton had to raise funds for the operation, and, equally daunting, recruit British families to foster the children.
Back in England, Winton continued as a stockbroker by day, but by night, with help from his mother and others, he worked nonstop for the Czechoslovakian children. He publicized the children’s plight in newspapers, wrote to organizations to plead for funding, and printed cards with photos of the children to enable prospective foster parents to make a selection. Some criticized the photo cards for presenting children like commodities, but the cards served Winton’s purpose of securing the maximum number of homes quickly. Other complaints came from rabbis who protested placing Jewish children in Christian homes. Winton, a non-practicing Christian of German Jewish ancestry, responded forcefully, saying that parents preferred that their children risk conversion in Britain rather than death in Prague.
With the outbreak of war on September 1, 1939, Winton’s rescue mission came to a sudden cruel halt. Winton’s ninth and largest transport train, carrying 250 children, was scheduled to depart that day but remained trapped in Prague. Nearly all those children later perished.