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Sir Nicholas George Winton, MBE (born 19 May 1909) is a British humanitarian who organized the rescue of 669 mostly Jewish children from German-occupied Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Second World War in an operation later known as the Czech Kindertransport. Winton found homes for them and arranged for their safe passage to Britain. The UK press has dubbed him the "British Schindler".
In 1907, Winton's parents, who were of German-Jewish origin, moved from Germany to Hampstead, London, where Nicholas was born. The family name was Wertheim, but they subsequently changed it to Winton.
The family eventually converted to Christianity and Winton was baptised. In 1923, he transferred to Stowe School, which had just opened. He left without matriculating, attending night school while volunteering at the Military Bank. Some time later, he left for Hamburg where he began to work at Behrens Bank, and then for Wasserman Bank in Berlin. In 1931, he left for France where he worked for the Banque Nationale de Crédit in Paris and earned a banking qualification. After his return to London he worked as a stockbroker at the London Stock Exchange.
Before Christmas 1938, Winton was about to travel to Switzerland for a skiing holiday when he decided instead to travel to Prague to help a friend who was involved in Jewish refugee work. There he single-handedly established an organization to aid children from Jewish families in Czechoslovakia at risk from the Nazis. He set up an office at a dining room table in his hotel in Wenceslas Square. In November 1938, shortly after Kristallnacht, the House of Commons had approved a measure that would permit the entry of refugees younger than 17 years old into Britain if they had a place to stay and a warranty of £50 was deposited for a return ticket for their eventual return to their country of origin.
An important obstacle was getting official permission to cross into Holland, as the children were destined to embark the ferry in Hook of Holland. The Dutch had officially closed their borders to any Jewish refugees after the Kristallnacht and the Dutch border guards (marechaussee) actively hunted them and sent them back to Germany. The goings-on during the Kristallnacht were nevertheless well known in the Low Countries, as for instance from the Dutch-German border the synagogue in Aix-la-Chappelle could be seen burning, being only 3 miles away.
Winton nevertheless succeeded, thanks to the guarantees he had obtained from the British. After the first train, things went relatively well crossing Holland. Also active in saving Jewish children, mostly from Vienna and Berlin, was the Dutchwoman Gertruida Wijsmuller-Meier. The problem of the Jewish children was therefore well known in the Netherlands. There is not any known information regarding whether Sir Nicholas and 'Tante Truus' (auntie Truus), as she was commonly known, ever met. Tante Truus also managed to get her children – some 10,000 – mostly out through the Hook. In 2012, a statue was erected on the quai to commemorate all those who saved Jewish children. The Winton Train passed through Holland to the Hook in 2009, but went largely unnoticed.
Winton found homes for 669 children, many of whose parents perished in Auschwitz. Winton's mother also worked with Winton to place the children in homes, and later hostels. Throughout the summer he placed advertisements seeking families to take them in. The last group of 250, which had left Prague on 1 September 1939, was sent back because the Nazis had invaded Poland, marking the start of World War II.
With the coming of war, Winton sought registration as a conscientious objector and served with the Red Cross, but in 1940 changed to service in the Administrative and Special Duties Branch of the Royal Air Force. He was initially an airman, rising to sergeant by the time he was commissioned as an acting pilot officer on probation on 22 June 1944. On 17 August 1944, he was promoted to pilot officer on probation. He was promoted to war substantive flying officer on 17 February 1945. He retained his commission until 19 May 1954 when he relinquished it, retaining the rank of flight lieutenant.
Winton kept his humanitarian exploits under wraps for many years until his wife Grete found a detailed scrapbook in the attic in 1988. The scrapbook contained lists of the children, including their parents' names, and the names and addresses of the families that took them in. After sending letters to these addresses, 80 of "Winton's children" were found in Britain. The world found out about Winton's work in 1988 during an episode of the BBC television programme That's Life! when Winton was invited to be an audience member. At one point during the programme Winton's scrapbook was shown, and his achievements explained. The host of the programme, Esther Rantzen, then asked if there was anyone in the audience who owed their lives to Winton, and, if so, to stand – at which point more than two dozen audience members surrounding Winton rose and applauded.
Winton was awarded Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Fourth Class, by the Czech President in 1998. In the 1983 Queen's Birthday Honours, he was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his work in establishing the Abbeyfield homes for the elderly in Britain, and in the 2002 New Year Honours, he was knighted in recognition of his work on the Czech Kindertransporte. He met the Queen again during her state visit to Bratislava, Slovakia in October 2008. In 2003, Winton received the Pride of Britain Award for Lifetime Achievement.
The minor planet 19384 Winton was named in his honour by Czech astronomers Jana Tichá and Miloš Tichý.
In 2008, he was honoured by the Czech government in several ways. An elementary school in Kunžak is named after him, and he was awarded the Cross of Merit of the Minister of Defence, Grade I. He was also nominated by the Czech government for the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize.
Although Winton was baptised as Christian, his ancestry was considered entirely Jewish, which disqualified him from being declared a Righteous Gentile. In 2010, Winton was named a British Hero of the Holocaust by the British Government.
A statue in his honour was unveiled at Maidenhead railway station by Home Secretary and local MP for Maidenhead, Theresa May, in September 2010. Created by Lydia Karpinska, it depicts Winton relaxing on a bench whilst reading a book.
Another statue in his honour is on 'platform one' of the Praha hlavní nádraží railway station. It depicts Winton holding a child and standing next to another one. Created by Flor Kent, it was unveiled as part of a larger commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the last Kindertransport train, 1 September 2009 (see also Winton train, below).
To celebrate his 100th birthday, he flew over the White Waltham Airfield in a microlight piloted by Judy Leden, the daughter of one of the boys he saved. His birthday was also marked by the publication of a profile in the Jewish Chronicle.
On 1 September 2009, a special "Winton train" set off from the Prague Main railway station. The train, consisting of an original locomotive and carriages used in the 1930s, headed to London via the original Kindertransport route. On board the train were several surviving "Winton children" and their descendants, who were to be welcomed by Winton in London. The occasion marked the 70th anniversary of the intended last Kindertransport, which was due to set off on 3 September 1939 but never did because of the outbreak of the Second World War. At the train's departure, Winton's statue was unveiled at the railway station.
Winton's work is the subject of three films by Slovak filmmaker Matej Miná?: the drama All My Loved Ones (1999), in which Winton was played by Rupert Graves, the documentary The Power of Good: Nicholas Winton (Síla lidskosti—Nicholas Winton, 2002), which won an Emmy Award. and the documentary drama Nicky's Family (Nickyho rodina, 2011).
A play Numbers from Prague about Sir Nicholas Winton was performed in Cambridge, UK in January 2011
Sir Nicholas became a part of a project "The Giants" where great personalities leave their hand print to be made in crystal glass by glass artist Jan Hu?át. Sir Nicholas gave his hand print on the second of October 2009 at his garden in Maidenhead, England. His hand print – Crystal Touch is exhibited at Crystal Touch Museum in Terezín.