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Lecture by Sir Nicholas Winton MBE, 100, at the Oxford University Chabad Society

In the presence of 'Winton Kindertransport children' Vera Gissing & John Fieldsend, as well as Lord & Lady Sainsbury Kindertransport refugee Sir Guenter Treitel


"How I saved 669 Jewish children from the Holocaust"


Sir Nicholas George Winton, MBE, 100 years old, is the organiser of the rescue of 669 Jewish children from German-occupied Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II in an operation later known as the Czech Kindertransport. Winton was awarded Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Fourth Class by the Czech President in 1998. In the early 1980s he was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire for his work in establishing the Abbeyfield homes for the elderly in Britain, and in 2002 was knighted in recognition of his work on the Czech Kindertransporte. The minor planet 19384 Winton was named in his honour by Czech astronomers Jana Tichá and Miloš Tichý.


We are delighted to present here the transcript of the lecture by Sir Nicholas Winton on 10 November, 2009 at the Oxford University Chabad Society:


Remembering the First World War


A hundred years is a very long time indeed. It was a time when there was no electric iron, no fridge. Mother had to go out into the street in the morning with a jug and wait for the milkman to come and fill it up. No refrigerator of course. It was all very, very different. Obviously, no television. Wireless was completely in its infancy and I spent a lot of my time making recoils to get the first communications when the BBC was just starting out. It was quite a job and very interesting. There were of course no washing machines. You had a boiler in the house and there was a mangle (a mechanical laundry aid consisting of two rollers in a sturdy frame, connected by cogs and, in its home version, powered by a hand crank), through which the washing was put to get the water out. There was a very fastidious friend of mother’s when she was washing her husband’s shirt, took all the buttons off because she was afraid the mangle will break the buttons. She had to then sow them all back on again. It was all very, very different to what it is today.


I was asked recently at Rotary what my main memories were from before the war. I said I could tell you that I remember the Zeppelin (a type of rigid airship pioneered by the German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in the early 20th century) flying over London. And he said: wrong war. Quite recently, as the only surviving member of Stowe School, I was invited there to open a wing for girls. I only learnt what a girl is very late in life because they weren’t in school with me. I realised how old I was when I realised that the present headmaster was not even born when I was a student there. It was all very, very different.


A world too fast


LdCn3518506.jpgEven ten years after that time in 1938, when I was working in the city, I was asked by my firm to get to South Africa as quickly as I could, to fix up a joint account, an arbitrage (practice of taking advantage of a price differential between two or more markets). The quickest way was by flying boat and it took five days. When we got to the Pyramids, and we flew round, the pilot came back to me and said, did you get your pictures alright or shall I go round again. I mean, thinking of those days, it is absolutely extraordinary what has happened since. To my mind, quite frankly, I know none of you here will agree with me, I don’t think it’s all to the good. I think it is all much unnecessarily fast and hasty and contrived. I recently went to Paris for lunch and was back for a late tea. I suppose it is wonderful but I can’t think that it does anything to help the world along really.


Life is unpredictable - always be prepared to help others


Life is very much unpredictable. Things never turn out how you expect. The main things, I think, and that will apply to of course all you students, the main things happen unexpectedly, where you are, at the right time, and particularly, do you have the knowledge, facilities and capabilities to deal with things as they arrive? You need to have the knowledge to deal with a new situation when it arrives. You can stand by the side of a river when someone falls in and you get a gong for saving his life. But first of all you have to able to swim and you have to be the lucky one that was by the river at that particular time. So life altogether is a matter of the unexpected. All you can do is learn as much as you can and be prepared to do the unexpected. It happens the whole time. Recently, a pilot landed a plane very successfully into the Hudson River. Quite rightly he got very much praised for that. But he really had no choice. This is what he had trained to do. Where else should he have landed it, on top of a Manhattan building? You need to be always prepared, have an open mind and do what you can (to help others). Above all, believe that nothing is impossible. If it is not impossible there must be a way of doing it. Don’t be content to think what other people say that you can’t do it.


Don’t take no for an answer  


VRoG3518514.jpgIf in 1938 I had taken the advice of most of the people who were seeing exactly the same as what I was seeing in Czechoslovakia. There were limits to the number of families that could move and that meant that the children also couldn’t move. Could the children be moved without the families? Everybody knew that it was a problem. Everybody I talked to was quite certain it’s hopeless - you won’t ever be able to get the permission to do that, but nobody had asked. So I think the thing is, have an open mind. Not to take no for an answer and be prepared to do the unexpected.


Religion should unite people not divide


We are living in a very, very dangerous age at this particular time. A lot of the dangerous things that are happening of course are caused generally by religion fighting each other and hating each other. I would have thought that all the religions have the same ethical standards, of goodness, kindness, decency, empathy, love and tolerance. If that is so - I am not against religion, I thing it’s marvelous if people can be religious - but why aren’t the ethics more emphasised? Why can’t people talk about things that unite us rather than the thing that divide us?


Helped with the formation of the State of Israel


Question: Do you have any suggestions for people who care about the situation in the Middle East?


jiSe3518508.jpgWinton: I can’t think of anyone who is not worried, distressed and sad about what is happening in the Middle East. It is not a time to go back to Balfour, who in a way made the State legitimate. I had quite a part in making it legitimate, when after the war I worked for the international refugee organisation in Geneva and we were bought all the loot that the Germans had taken from the Jews of the concentration camps: pictures, gold and an enormous amount of jewellery, fountain pens, glasses and many other things. I was in charge of sorting out the jewellery – we had some American experts who came over to help us in that – and I had to convert it into money, into gold and that money that I collected from all the loot what the Germans took from the Jews in the camps, was distributed under the Paris agreement. Ninety five percent went to Israel and five percent to a Christian organisation. It was a horrible job. I had crates in front of me, crates of false teeth. Can you imagine? My job was to melt it down and get the gold out. For those who were more financially minded, I had to get the best price at the time, which was then $35 an ounce. It is now over a $1,000 an ounce. The money that I got and sent to Israel went to the treasurer of the Jewish Agency. The Jewish state had not yet fully formed and he became in fact the first Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is a round about answer to your question and maybe of interest to some people.


Achievements after the War - helped the elderly 


Question: What was your biggest achievement since the Kindertransport?


Winton. I think my biggest achievement since the Kindertransport was fencing for England in international sports. I helped establish Abbeyfield homes for the elderly and home for the mentally handicapped. Nothing of great note.


Views on Bevin and Chamberlain


Question: How did you find yourself in Czechoslovakia that put you in the situation to be able to help with the Kindertransport?


xgZQ3518512.jpgWinton: Before the war, I was very politically minded and very left wing orientated and I was lucky to know all the left wing people who were operating when Churchill was there. One was Nye Bevin, Labour health minister, who was an extraordinary person. If you had a room full of people and Niall came in, he was the only person there. It may be interesting for you to know, I was with Bevin the day before he bought the National Health Service Bill before parliament in 1946. He told me, Nikky, I am bringing this bill before parliament tomorrow. It is full of flaws. But if I don’t bring it before parliament there won’t be a Health Service at all. He was a very great man, Nye Bevin and all the rest. That explains I suppose my attitude when I was in Prague. I just couldn’t credit that the Conservatives and Chamberlain could possibly ever think after what Hitler had done after the end of 1938, after the countries he had already occupied, after the terrible things that he was doing, that he was going to keep his word on a bit of paper.


Chamberlain’s side were wrong


Question: What was the view of the Foreign Office of your activities?


Winton: The Foreign Office is supposed to act what the government tells them to do. I don’t think the Foreign Office could have altered what the government had said. Anyway, if they were on Chamberlain’s side they were wrong. But I don’t think they were and I don’t think they had any power.


The Kindertransport children were safe and they were alive


Question: How did you find families for the children?


Winton. Most of the people who agreed to take a child, it worked. But I had set up an organisation, which actually Mother ran, continued to run once the war started and I went off, and that was ‘after care’, and obviously there were situation in which the guarantees broke down, either there were some other reason or they just died, and mother struggled to find another accommodation for them. You’re quite right you can’t find 700 homes for young children and expect them all to be perfect. I was told that some were badly treated. But they were safe and they were alive. Yes, you couldn’t guarantee perfection in that.


If I would have been accepted as a pilot when I enlisted early 1940, I certainly wouldn’t be alive day


Winton: I was talking to you earlier about how things don’t turn out how you expect them. When I was young in early 30’s I learnt how to fly privately, to take up an aircraft on my own. When I got over my pacifist ideas towards the beginning of the war, I thought the best service I could give is to join the air force, as they would be delighted to have someone who already knew how to fly. They said they would be delighted to have me but they wouldn’t allow me to fly because I wore glasses. It just shows what a hazard life is. They later took people with half an arm and without a leg. If I would have been accepted as a pilot when I enlisted early 1940, I certainly wouldn’t be alive day.


You can’t be a pacifist by yourself when the other one is fighting


Question: As a pacifist, do you think there was a way to have stopped Hitler in non-militarist way?


Winton: It is impossible for one country or one set of people to be a pacifist on your own. This is the problem today. It needs to be universal. This is why I back Europe for some kind of universality. You are quite right, if everyone was pacifistic, the people with the guns would take over. I think if you want to be a pacifist then everyone has to be a pacifist. You can’t be a pacifist by yourself when the other one is fighting. Indeed, more needs to be taught about ethics, kindness and so on but there was no choice. Churchill said that the conditions we worked under are awful but the best possible.