In the months before the outbreak of war, Adolf Hitler’s anti-Jewish sentiments spurred brutal attacks against Jewish people – especially the Kristallnacht – the “Night of Broken Glass – on November 9-10, 1938. This event led British authorities, under pressure from the public and refugee organizations, to allow children under the age of 17 to come into Great Britain. These children were mainly from Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Austria. The Refugee Children’s Movement (RCM) – then known as the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany – organized the transportation of 10,000 children to Great Britain. Known as Kindertransport, the RCM was not working alone. Other refugee organizations and individuals helped save these children from almost certain death (many were the only ones in their family to survive the war). One such individual was Nicholas Winton.
In 1938, when Europe was on the cusp of war, Winton was a 29-year-old stockbroker from West Hampstead, England. Around Christmas, Winton made plans to go on a ski vacation to Switzerland. He deviated from his plans when a friend asked him to travel to Prague instead to help with Jewish refugee work through the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia. He agreed. Once in Czechoslovakia, Winton realized that Jewish children were in dire need of safety. Winton organized the efforts to send them to Great Britain where his mother, and others, helped find homes f0r the children. He reached out to organizations, private businesses, and the general public for assistance. On May 16th, 1939, Winton even wrote to President Roosevelt asking if there was anything the United States could do for these young refugees.
Perhaps people in America do not realize how little is being and has been done for refugee children in Czechoslovakia. They have to depend entirely on private guarantors to get into England, which means that somebody has to take full responsibility for maintenance, upkeep, and education, until they are 18 years of age. No other country is taking an interest in them except for Sweden, which took 35 children last February. We at this office have case-papers and photos of over 5000 children, quite apart from a further 10,000 whom we estimate have to register. Actually, so far, we have brought only about 120 into England.
In Bohemia and Slovakia today, there are thousands of children, some homeless and starving, mostly without nationality, but they certainly all have one thing in common: there is no future, if they are forced to remain where they are. Their parents are forbidden work and the children are forbidden schooling, and apart from the physical discomforts, which all this signifies, the moral degradation is immeasurable. Yet since Munich, hardly anything has been done for the children in Czechoslovakia. Many of the children are quite destitute having had to move more than once since they originally fled from Germany.
Is it possible for anything to be done to help us with this problem in America? It is hard to state our case forcibly in a letter, but we trust to your imagination to realize how desperately urgent the situation is.
Believe me, Esteemed Sir, with many thanks,
Your obedient Servant,
What happened to Winton’s request? According to the National Archives:
The White House referred it to the Department of State for action shortly after receipt. It was ultimately filed in the Department’s primary file on the issue of refugees displaced by persecution and war in Europe. The Department took two steps: First, it forwarded a copy of the letter to George L. Warren, Executive Secretary of the President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees. The Department suggested that organizations represented by the Committee might be interested. Second, it sent the U.S. embassy in London a copy of the letter with the instruction to acknowledge receipt of the letter and “to advise him that the United States Government is unable, in the absence of specific legislation, to permit immigration in excess of that provided for by existing immigration laws,” but that the letter had been forwarded to the President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees since it was possible that private organizations might be of help.
Winton’s efforts saved 669 children. To put this into today’s context, around 6,000 people currently owe their lives to his heroic actions. This number will only go up as the descendants of the children he saved increase. Winton’s 1939 rescue show how these ‘little’ ripples in the water can grow into waves.
View the list of children Winton saved here.
To read more of Winton’s story, check out the brief post at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Or, read the book his daughter wrote about her father’s life.
“Kindertransport, 1938–1940,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“Kristallnacht: A Nationwide Pogrom, November 9–10, 1938,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“Nicholas Winton and the Rescue of Children from Czechoslovakia, 1938–1939,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Langbart, David, “Nicholas Winton and Refugee Children: A Follow-up to “60 Minutes,” National Archives, April 30, 2014.