The Rotary Club of Maidenhead shared some sad news on Wednesday when it announced the death at 106 of Sir Nicholas Winton, the U.K.’s answer to Oskar Schindler. Winton, of his own accord, went to Czechoslovakia after it was taken over by Hitler’s Nazi Germany just prior to the outbreak of World War II and the subsequent Holocaust. He was instrumental in helping orchestrate efforts to save some 669 mostly Jewish children from meeting their end in the Holocaust.
After managing this remarkable feat, he remained silent for nearly 50 years, saying nothing about it to anyone, including his wife of 40 years, Grete Gjelstrup. Gjelstrup was a Dane, and she married Winton in 1948. The marriage produced three children, although one would die young at the age of seven.
The Wintons seemed like a normal family, and Gjelstrup had no idea of her husband’s heroics half a century earlier. She only found out by chance while cleaning out the family’s attic in 1988, and accidentally coming upon the scrapbook that Winton had kept hidden for all of those years. It contained tons of names, photos, and other personal documents and references to colleagues who helped in the effort. However, the meaning of all of this was still largely a mystery. Gjelstrup asked her husband what this was all about, and he gave her a rough sketch of the story, although he downplayed the significance of the event, and his own role in it. He even recommended simply tossing the book away.
Gjelstrup knew better, however. She understood the value of the book, and with her husband’s reluctant consent, she explored the matter further, giving it to a historian who specialized in the Holocaust. What followed was a media blitz, including a newspaper article and a television program which revealed the story, and Winton’s crucial role in it, which allowed him to be recognized as the U.K. Oskar Schindler before his death at 106.
Before long, Winton was receiving worldwide acclaim for his heroics, including letters and honors from various heads of state. He became a member of the prestigious Order of the British Empire. The Czech Republic gave him their highest award, and even nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Winton had streets and schools named after him, and some statues of him were built in Prague and London. Books have been written and movies have been made about his efforts.
Winton had worked in the financial sector in the 1930s. He was fluent in both French and German after working at banks in Germany and France, and returned to London in 1931. He was a member of the Royal Air Force during the war, and afterward, he worked for various charities, including the Abbeyfield Society, an organization that helps elderly people. In one of his more memorable fundraising efforts, he managed to raise more than £1 million.
These accomplishments alone would be enough for Winton to be considered a national hero, but it was what he managed to do just before the war for which he is most remembered. He was a young man working as a stockbroker when a friend told him about the dangers many Jewish families were facing in Prague, which had recently been taken over by the Nazis. Of his own accord, Winton went to Prague and helped to set up an operation known as the Czech Kindertransport, which ended up saving the lives of 669 mostly Jewish children. It took bribes of Nazi officials and all manners of organizing efforts to help the children escape Nazi Germany and bring them to Britain, but he was instrumental in making it happen.
Sir Nicholas Winton, the U.K.’s answer to Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg, is dead at the age of 106. He is survived by two of his children and two grandchildren. Many of the children that he saved have survived as well, and they call themselves, “Winton’s Children.” There are now over 6,000 descendants of those original children, and his memory will live on.
Written by Charles Bordeau
Edited by Jennifer Pfalz
The New York Times – Nicholas Winton, Rescuer of 669 Children From Holocaust, Dies at 106
Upworthy – 669 Jewish children were saved from the Holocaust by a single man. This is how they thanked him.
The Mind Unleashed – He Saved 669 Children During The Holocaust… And He Doesn’t Know They’re Sitting Next To Him
Photo courtesy of German Embassy London’s Flickr page – Creative Commons License