Clouds of dust spring from old crevices as Grete Winton treads the creaky floorboards of the attic in her home in Maidenhead, England. In the gloom her eyes fix on a stack of yellowed papers in the corner. Casting her gaze over the contents of the documents – which detail hundreds of names, personal details and photographs – she uncovers a secret hidden by her husband for half a century.
Her husband Nicholas Wertheimer was born in London in 1909. His parents, Rudolph and Barbara, were of German-Jewish descent but converted to Christianity in order to assimilate into British society. They even changed their family name to Winton in the process.
The newly christened Nicholas Winton, then, was sent to the independent Stowe School in Buckinghamshire. He later embarked on a career in international banking, and – after stints of employment in Hamburg, Berlin and Paris – he came back to the U.K. a fluent speaker of French and German.
In 1938 Winton became a stockbroker, but despite his capitalist career path he was attracted to socialism and Britain’s left-of-center Labour Party. At this point, however, the clouds of war were beginning to gather over Europe.
Hitler’s systematic abuses toward Jews in Germany were by then no secret, and one episode of terror made his stance abundantly clear. It came in November 1938 when the Nazis oversaw a series of riots and attacks against Jewish people and property.
The violent events became known as Kristallnacht, or “Night of Broken Glass.” It saw Jewish businesses attacked and Synagogues destroyed, with the assaults forcing other European governments to sit up and take notice.
Shortly afterward, thousands of German Jews escaped into neighboring European countries. And the U.K., for example, permitted entry to all Jewish children aged 16 and under who sought sanctuary there.
The decision sparked the beginning of Kindertransport, or “Children’s Transport.” So, under the direction of Jewish groups working within the Third Reich, Jewish children were moved across Europe by train to the U.K.
Many of those fleeing had already been orphaned; others’ parents had been sent to concentration camps. Regardless, though, they were brought into the U.K. on the condition that their schooling and care would be paid for by charities or individual citizens.
The first refugees to arrive in December 1938 were 200 children whose Berlin orphanage had been wrecked in the Nazi-orchestrated attacks. But while Jewish children from Germany and Austria were being rescued, those in the recently annexed Czechoslovakia were still stranded.
By contrast, as these events were unfolding, Nicholas Winton was planning a skiing holiday. A letter from a friend, however, changed everything. Martin Blake had traveled to Czechoslovakia to help organize the movement of Jewish refugees, and his message read, “I have a most interesting assignment and I need your help. Don’t bother bringing your skis.”
Winton took up the challenge. And, on arrival in Czechoslovakia, where huge numbers of refugees were packed into camps, he was shocked into action. Sensing the plight of the Jewish children, then, Winton set to work.
Working from a hotel room in Prague, Winton and his associates began registering the names of the Jewish families who had asked for help. Their actions didn’t, however, go unnoticed.
Indeed, as desperate families flocked to Winton and his colleagues, the Gestapo started taking an interest. And while their initial enquiries were staved off with numerous bribes, Winton knew he was working on borrowed time.
So, leaving pals Bill Barazetti and Trevor Chadwick to oversee operations in Prague, Winton returned to the U.K. to make preparations for the refugees’ impending arrival. His mission was about to begin in earnest.
The U.K.’s Home Office, though, was slow to issue the documentation necessary for the children’s resettlement. Therefore, Winton subsequently felt compelled to forge the required entry permits.
By March 1939 the stage was set: for the next six months Winton and his colleagues organized the movement of children on nine trains. The dangerous route went through Nazi Germany, but after Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September, the final train sadly failed to make it through.
However, due to the efforts of Winton and his friends, 669 Jewish children made it safely to England. On arrival, they were taken in by willing foster families.
Furthermore, not only did Winton save so many lives from the Nazis, but he also served in Britain’s Royal Air Force during the war. And in the years afterward, he went on to work for charities helping refugees and the elderly.
Yet Winton’s heroic actions in Czechoslovakia may well have been forgotten had his wife Grete not stumbled upon a scrapbook of pictures and details that documented the operation. An incredibly modest man, he never spoke of the episode until his wife made the discovery in 1988.
That year, Winton was honored in a surprise TV program, which brought together many of those he had rescued. He received a knighthood in 2003 and lived to the ripe old age of 106, only passing away in 2015. His story is an inspiring example of humanity in the face of unspeakable barbarism, and that, surely, is the epitome of awesome.