Friday 3 July 2015


Mensch n. a person of integrity and honour.  (Yiddish and German)
Nicky Winton just [1st July 2015] died.  He was born Nicholas Wertheim in Hampstead N. London and died Sir Nicholas Winton at the age of 106. His passing has been widely noted on both sides of the Atlantic but more or less ignored in Ireland because we have hardly any Jews left.  It may have recovered but a few years ago the congregation in Cork failed to achieve the quorum [minyan מִנְיָן] of ten adult (older than 13) males and so the synagogue was officially disbanded. Nicky Winton was born well-heeled, went to a fee-paying school, worked in a few different banks in Europe and then launched himself as a London stock-broker.  He was sporty in a skiing and fencing sort of way rather than soccer and also rather left-of-centre and anti-appeasement in the politics of the 1930s.
At Christmas 1938, he was persuaded by a socialist pal to skip their annual skiing trip and come and lend a hand with the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia BCRC.  It was chaos in Prague: In September Czecho had been dismembered and partly occupied by the Germans with the collusion of the British and French governments: "a quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing" N Chamberlain, UK PM. A desperate mill of displaced persons was in town and homeless: not only Jews but also Sudenten Czechs, Communists, active Socialists and certain other religious groups were deeply uncertain about the future.  Things took a plunge into the abyss after Kristallnacht 9-10th November 1938 with the Netherlands closing its borders to Jewish refugees. But the British government was persuaded by the Jewish establishment like Chaim Weizmann and the Rothschilds to open up their borders to a 'better class' of Jewish refugee children.  They had to be under 17; have a designated home to go to; and have someone who would stand surety of £50.  The £50 would exclude the riff-raff although it was couched as the price of repatriation when things settled down.

As a  Mensch, Winton couldn't stand there and watch as the children were swept into camps with or without their parents. He had to do something. His action turned out to be setting up a dining table in his hotel room and taking details and photographs of children who might qualify for refugee status in Britain. The BCRC was already working to the same end, but he got printed some letterhead calling himself the Hon.Secr. of the Children's Section of the BCRC.  His mother, back in London, went round her extensive and well-connected network to find the £50s and the homes. Winton, with Doreen Warriner, Trevor Chadwick and others supplied the names.  After three wearing weeks at the coal-face in Prague, he returned to his office in London and spent each evening sorting out and circumventing the bureaucratic treacle in which "his" list of young refugees was mired. It started with forgery and he was not adverse to a little light blackmail to get what he wanted. He was impatient with the leisurely mandarins who didn't believe it would come to war and impatient with Rabbis who didn't want Jewish children billeted with gentiles. 

He organised the paperwork and got the travel documents sent back to Prague, train tickets were bought, the Dutch government was squared because "his" Jews were in transit.  Parents kissed their children goodbye; the optimistic expecting to see them again after a few months, the realists having less hope. As the fog of impending war descended, Winton was not above forging travel documents when the genuine ones seemed too slow in coming. In all 660+ children, of whom 561 were Jewish, escaped as the jaws were closing to a new life in Britain. The first batch left Prague the day before the Wehrmacht marched in from the Sudentenland and the last shipment of 250 which was due to leave on 1st September 1939 never left: German trains and train-track were frightfully busy with the invasion of Poland. Despite a direct appeal from the Children's Section of the BCRC to President Roosevelt [R on the forged letterhead], the American government refused to take any of these refugees.  It's probable that FDR never even saw the letter - he had a country, still limp from the Great Depression, to run.

Not everyone, not even the Germans, were as certain as the BCRC that it would all end very badly for these children if they stayed where they were. They did after all, transit across Germany by train in order to reach haven in Britain.  die Endlösung der Judenfrage [Final Solution] wasn't codified in the Reich until January 1942.  In June 1940 they were hoping to ship a million Jews a year to Madagascar but that never happened.  When the war broke out for Britain on 3rd September 1939, Winton registered as a conscientious objector and drove an ambulance in Normandy. Afterwards he gave up such leftist half-measures and joined the RAF to fight.  After the war he was back in Europe working for a while at the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development IBRD in Paris where he met his wife. They returned to England and he settled down to a busy life doing bankery things, as well as charity work for the mentally handicapped and had three children. He also started a couple of old folks homes as a business and got impatient with increasingly stringent and intrusive health and safety regulations.

50 years after his Prague adventures, his wife discovered a ledger in the attic which listed all the children who had made it to England.  It was a complete surprise to her and probably a distant dream to him but the story leaked out to the press who set about tracing some of the survivors. That culminated in an emotional reunion orchestrated by Esther Rantzen and the teleprog That's Life. Excuse me, my glasses are misting up. It is claimed that, through natural increase over 4 generations, "his" children have 15,000 descendents.  Actually, it's probably only 2.5 descendent generations because although there are GtGrandchildren there won't yet be a 'full' generation of them.  That sounds a scarcely credible rate of increase but it's only 3.5 children per generation:
670 * (3.5 ^2.5) =  15,350
The best sources of information have been the Guardian Obit and BBC Hardtalk.  Best in that neither of them mentioned Schindler which is all too easy a characterisation of someone who did the right thing. He's been honoured [Sir] by the Brits and by Czecho [Order of the White Lion] and by science [minor planet 19384Winton].  But he doesn't qualify, as Oskar Schindler did, as one of the Righteous Among the Nations [חסידי אומות העולם‎] because his folks were Jewish. 

And it's probably important to read a rather sour alternative view of Winton's achievements, or we'll all get the feeling that we would have done likewise if we had been in his shoes in 1939. One of the points made in that essay is that politicians used the story of the Kindertransporten to make more palatable the prospect of accepting tens of thousands of "refugees" or "economic migrants" depending on where you stand on the issue. That's very topical with thousands of Mediterranean boat people being lifted out of the drink from unseaworthy scows by Irish sailors on the LÉ Eithne.

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