A Very Reluctant Hero
Daily Express, 26 January 2011
At the age of 101 Sir Nicholas Winton is an idol, still treated like royalty for selflessly saving hundreds of children’s lives. He just can’t understand what all the fuss is about.
Sir Nicholas Winton has been dubbed ‘Britain’s Schindler’ for his role in establishing the 1939 Kindertransport which saved 669 Czech (mainly Jewish) children from Hitler’s death camps. He’s become a well-known figure here but in the Czech Republic he is nothing short of a national hero, afforded the sort of VIP treatment enjoyed mainly by Heads of State and Hollywood A-listers.
I’ve just witnessed it, having come back from a trip to Prague with him as a member of his extended family (for the past 12 years I have been his son Nick’s partner). We were there to attend the premiere of a Czech documentary film about him, and it was a whirlwind affair. Flown over on a private jet, whisked through the streets with flashing lights from a police escort, lunches with government ministers and ambassadors, a military guard of honour and the constant flurry of photographers, news reporters and TV crews.
In the midst of it all reigned the calm Sir Nicholas (Nicky to his family and friends), aged 101, ensconced in his wheelchair and exuding an air of someone slightly bemused by all the fuss. Naturally he likes hobnobbing with the great and the good, and numbers Vaclav Havel, the former Czech President and leading anti-communist dissident, amongst his friends. But he has often told me how discomfited he is by all this hero-worshipping.
‘What I did wasn’t heroic,’ he argues, ‘because I was never in any danger. I took on a big task but did it from the safety of my home in Hampstead.’ He insists he should not be compared to those who risked their lives, such as Oskar Schindler, or indeed my own mother, the singer Vali Racz, honoured by Israel for rescuing Jewish friends in Budapest during the Nazi occupation.
It is gracious of him to acknowledge this truth, but nobody is listening – least of all the hundreds of Czech kinder whom he saved from the Holocaust by bringing them to London in the nick of time and placing them with English foster families.
Throughout nine months in 1939 – from January until the outbreak of war at the beginning of September – 669 children were sent on eight trains from Prague to London’s Liverpool Street Station. The vast majority never again saw their parents and relatives, who were to end up taking train journeys of their own – to Auschwitz or other concentration camps, where they perished. These former kinder are now elderly themselves, with grandchildren of their own, and they idolise Nicky Winton as their saviour.
So he puts up with the exhausting succession of media folk clamouring for interviews, determinedly tracking down the tucked-away house with the big garden near Maidenhead, in Berkshire, which he built in the 1950s and has lived in ever since. ‘I just wish some of these reporters would be more accurate,’ he says, a touch wearily. ‘The problem is, they don’t always listen.’
One of their errors, he says, is to give the impression that his humanitarian mission was single-handed. In fact, others helped him in the complex operation to find an adoptive family for each child allowed into the country, as well as a guarantor prepared to pay the £50 bond (a lot of money in those days) for the child’s eventual repatriation to Czechoslovakia. There were countless letters to be written, phone calls to be made, detailed records to be kept. Nicky even enlisted his mother in the undertaking.
‘I ran the operation from London in my spare time, while working as a stockbroker in the City,’ says Nicky. ‘And it took a lot of persistence and resolve – lobbying the Home Office for approval, enlisting the support of charities, religious organisations, refugees’ aid groups and the press. But my associate Trevor Chadwick was in a trickier situation: he managed things at the Prague end, organising the children and the trains, and dealing with the Gestapo.’ When asked why Chadwick, a fellow Brit, has received so little public acknowledgement for his vital role in the Kindertransport, Nicky points out that Chadwick died many years ago, ‘while I’m still here’.
Since his story has been taken up by the world’s media – kick-started in 1988 by Esther Rantzen on her BBC TV programme That’s Life! and given a major boost by his 2003 knighthood – he feels he has ‘lost control’ of it and can no longer correct the misconceptions.
It has become part of the legend, for example, that after the war he deliberately kept his Kindertransport mission secret, never breathing a word about it to anyone. In fact, he simply put it behind him and largely forgot about it: ‘What I did in those nine months of 1939 was only a small part of my life. I went on to do many other things afterwards, which were more important to me. That’s why I didn’t talk about it.’
Nick has told me that he vaguely recalls the odd occasion during his adolescence when his father’s Kindertransport activities cropped up in general conversation at the dinner table, ‘but as a teenager you’re not really bothered about what your parents did in their youth. So it didn’t mean a lot to me. It was only much later that I began to appreciate the significance of what he had achieved.’
The world only knows about it today because Nick’s late mother, Danish-born Grete, was clearing out their attic one day and came across the dusty old files and records relating to the Czech kinder. She didn’t know what to do with them. In the end Grete decided that someone might be interested, and started showing them around. That is how, eventually, they ended up with Esther Rantzen, whose moving That’s Life! segment first reunited Nicky with some of the kinder he had saved. (Nicky and Rantzen have remained friends, to the extent that she sought his advice before deciding whether to stand as an independent Parliamentary candidate for Luton South in last year’s general election. He advised her against it, ‘but she didn’t listen to me’. She came fourth and lost her deposit.)
Most people assume Nicky must be an old sweetie, soft-spoken and kindly. But he is resolutely his own man and has some provocative views. Sometimes, when asked to speak in public about the Holocaust, he will remark: ‘What for? We never learn from the past. It would be better to move on from history and focus on the teaching of ethics, because they are sadly missing from public life.’ He has also said that the annual Holocaust Memorial Day shouldn’t only be about the Jews, but encompass other genocides and massacres that have taken place around the world – not an overly popular notion within the Jewish community.
He’s no fan of religion, and it is his firm opinion that nobody really believes in God, not even the most outwardly religious people. He is also a self-proclaimed, lifelong socialist who, with no sense of irony, checks the stock market prices each day to see how his shares are doing.
I have heard him give speeches and he always says what’s on his mind, rather than what is expected of him. The audience might be anticipating some standard sentiment on, say, inter-racial tolerance, but instead he’ll bring up the subject of global overpopulation and demand to know why politicians aren’t doing something about it.
Health and safety regulations, in particular, get his goat. For many years he has been involved in the management of a Maidenhead old peoples’ home, named after him, and he claims that the new rules have made running it so complicated, costly and counterproductive, that he would happily break them and get himself arrested just to make his point. ‘We don’t need all these ludicrous government edicts. We just want to care for our old people as we used to, without interference.’ (He blithely ignores the fact that the ‘old people’ at the home are considerably younger than him.)
I guess you get the picture by now. Even as a centenarian, Nicky doesn’t mind stirring things up. This was undoubtedly the trait which, coupled with his humanitarian instincts, led him to launch his rescue mission so many decades ago. He has been quoted as saying: ‘Anything that is not actually impossible, can be done, as long as one is determined that it shall be done.’
And that is the real message in Nicholas Winton’s story. You don’t have to be a hero to make a real difference in your life, only an ordinary human being prepared to roll his sleeves up and get stuck in. Personally, I find that thought rather reassuring.