Sir Nicholas Winton crossed Europe in 1939 and saved the lives of 669 Jewish children in Czechoslovakia. His daughter and one of the children he saved will unite tonight at Xavier University.
Tonight at Xavier University, a reunion will take place – testament to the power that one person had for good and that many believe lies within each person.
The meeting on Xavier’s Evanston campus of two women, Barbara Winton, the daughter of a British stockbroker, and a Czech physician named Renata Laxova, has root in horrific events that took place 76 years ago.
On the night of Nov. 9, 1938, and into the next morning, the Night of Broken Glass – Kristallnacht – swept across Germany and Austria. In those two days, 250 synagogues burned, 7,000 Jewish businesses were looted and countless Jewish cemeteries, hospitals, schools and homes were destroyed. Fire brigades stood by and watched buildings go up in flames. Dozens of Jewish people were killed, and after dawn broke, 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps.
Still, across Europe and in the United States, many political leaders and the citizenry considered Hitler a buffoon, cartoonish and incapable of carrying out his plan to annihilate Europe’s Jews.
In England, Barbara Winton’s stockbroker father took Hitler seriously. Nicholas Winton had read Hitler’s two-volume biographical manifesto, “Mein Kampf.” He had Jewish relatives who’d fled Germany. He read newspaper reports about Kristallnacht, the latter event convincing him he had to act at that time to get the children of Hitler’s enemies to England.
He would set up his own immigration and child service agencies, resorting to forgery to get children out as war approached. He raised money and recruited foster parents in England for each child. His efforts saved 669 Jewish children – Renata Laxova among them – from certain death in Hitler’s ovens.
Barbara Winton and Dr. Laxova will share their stories tonight as part of Xavier’s “Touching History” series. The documentary film about Winton’s daring rescue, “Nicky’s Family,” also will be shown.
Sir Nicholas Winton is still living, but “is sinking” at 105, his daughter said in an interview from England with The Enquirer. He recently returned to England from the Czech Republic, where he received that nation’s highest citation, the Order of the White Lion.
Winton’s heroic story came to light only after a half-century of silence. Now, CBS News’ “60 Minutes” has profiled him. Barbara Winton wrote a book, “If It’s Not Impossible,” which published in April.
“It is the first time I am talking about his life,” Barbara Winton said. “What he did was not just an idealist thought. He had the right skills. He needed all of them to make it happen.”
Single-minded Winton wanted to save thousands
In December 1938, less than a month after Kristallnacht, Jewish and Christian agencies began rescuing Jewish children from Germany and Austria under the name Operation Kindertransport. But no group existed in Prague to get children out of Hitler’s encroaching path. So Winton established his own, working first out of a Prague hotel room and eventually setting up shop back in England.
Word spread among Jewish parents of Winton’s agency, which he called “The British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, Children’s Section.” He contacted several nations in search of homes for Jewish children. Only his native England and Sweden opened their doors. The United States did not.
“He had a bloody, single-minded tendency,” Barbara Winton, 61, said of her father. “He didn’t care what he had to do. He just did it, whatever it took.”
He had circulated photographs of the Jewish children in newsletters and newspapers throughout England in an effort to secure foster homes.
On March 14, 1939, the first transport left Prague by plane for Britain. Nicholas Winton organized seven more transports, all leaving from Prague’s Wilson Railway Station. The final train left Aug. 2.
Renata Laxova, now 83, was on one of those trains. She was just 8 when she left her native land. The only child of Jewish parents, she was not allowed to attend second grade in public school in the fall of 1938. She no longer could swim in public pools because of her parents’ faith.
“I was excited at first. I had learned English,” Laxova said in an interview from Madison, Wisconsin, where she is Emeritus Professor of Genetics at the Departments of Pediatrics and Medical Genetics.
Her parents left their home with her at 10 p.m. The train was scheduled to leave at midnight. As the hour approached, the reality of separating from her parents set in.
“I was begging them to take me home,” she said. “I was promising to always eat spinach. I had always refused, which had been a significant issue in our home. My parents told me the truth. They said, ‘We are sending you away. There is nothing more we want than to have you with us. But we want you to learn in school and be safe. We will do what we can to follow you. If we can’t follow you, we will come and get you when this occupation is over.’ ”
Laxova made it out on the second-to-last transport organized by Nicholas Winton. He had one more scheduled. It would have been the largest, with 250 children aboard. But the train, which would have pulled out of Prague on Sept. 1, never moved from the station. War was declared that day, and Germany closed all of its native borders and borders of its occupied territory.
In earlier interviews in England, Nicholas Winton said he still laments the loss of that last transport.
“Within hours of the announcement (that war had started), the train disappeared. None of 250 people aboard was seen again. We had 250 families waiting at Liverpool Street that day in vain. If the train had been a day earlier, it would have come through. Not a single one of those children was heard of again, which is an awful feeling.”
“He had grand designs,” Barbara Winton said of her father. “He wanted to rescue thousands, not just hundreds.”
Winton’s story meant to inspire good works
After the war, Winton told no one what he had done in 1939 in Prague.
In 1988, his wife, Grete, found a scrapbook from 1939 in their attic of their home in Maidenhead, England.
The scrapbook and other of Winton’s papers are now housed in Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Israel.
In 2002, Winton received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II for his service to humanity.
Winton has said in interviews that he didn’t keep his exploits secret. He just didn’t talk about them.
Why now, though?
“Young people respond quite positively to the story, and some have told us that they are moved by my father’s efforts to do good in their own lives,” Barbara Winton said.
Yet the rescue of 669 children is not entertainment, she said.
“For some people who watch the story, it is quite uncomfortable,” Barbara Winton said. “For other people, the fact that it occurred 75 years ago creates enough distance for them that they are comfortable and not challenged to do something to help humanity. My father believes that even the most seemingly mundane acts of compassion and kindness are quite important.”
For Rabbi Abie Ingber, executive director of Xavier’s Center for Interfaith Community Engagement, Monday night’s event is meant to inspire.
“Nicholas Winton was in the middle of this historic period, and we know that he not only heard the sound of shattered lives but he acted. Against all odds his creative heart and hands gave life to 669 children,” said Ingber, who organized the event.
“The presence of his daughter, Barbara, at Xavier is a clarion call to hear the breaking of glass in our generation. Her reunion with Renata Laxova, one of those children, gives our eyes the impetus to see goodness in our lives, and gives our hearts reason to rejoice.”
About 6,000 people alive across the globe today owe their lives to Nicholas Winton. They are the descendants of a group of refugee children rescued by him from the Nazi threat in 1939.
Renata Laxova once briefly met Winton in 2009, the 70th anniversary of the rescue. She remembers the scene being a crowded one, with dozens of people pressing to get near him. Laxova reached his hand and kissed it. She had prepared a gift for him, a wooden plaque featuring a rendering of a train steaming across a map of Europe, fleeing danger in the East and heading towards safety in the West. She could not get the plaque into his hands.
“I admire him greatly,” she said. “He not only saved the lives of 669 children, he changed their thinking. He changed the hearts and minds of their descendants. I am very convinced. I believe there is not one of us who don’t want to do something good to change the world.”
Unlike most of Winton’s saved children, whose parents died in Hitler’s Final Solution, Laxova reunited with her parents after the war.
Some of the children managed to give Winton a gift, a ring he wears to this day.
The inscription is a line from the Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism.
It reads: “Save one life, save the world.”■
What: Touching History 1939, a celebration of the efforts of Sir Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.
When: Monday, Nov. 10, 7 p.m.
Where: Duff Banquet Center, Cintas Center, campus of Xavier University, Evanston.
Cost: Free and open to the public. Copies of Barbara Winton’s book, “If It’s Not Impossible,” will be available for purchase.
Sponsored by the Center for Interfaith Community Engagement at Xavier University and the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education.