The Man Who Never Bothered Telling His Wife He Was 'British Schindler' Dies at 106

Andre Walker
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Posted: Jul 05, 2015 12:00 PM
The Man Who Never Bothered Telling His Wife He Was 'British Schindler' Dies at 106

Even the most open and loving husbands do not admit everything they did in their 20s to their wives. For most people it's that drink driving thing at University, the fancy dress outfit that really was in bad taste after-all or the BBQ fail that made everyone ill.

But the secret Grete Winton discovered about her husband in 1988 left her absolutely stunned. She found a scrap book on a routine clean of her loft detailing how her husband Nicholas had saved 669 Jewish children from the Holocaust when he was just 29-years-old.

The reason Grete did not know Nicholas' secret was that he had not bothered telling anyone at all. He spent his life believing the desire to save as many children as you could from certain death was nothing to be proud of, in fact it was the natural state of mankind. This was a view that appeared to be unphased by the obvious contradiction the Holocaust itself raised.

The story began when Winton who was a stockbroker at Midland Bank (now HSBC) and was due to go on a skiing holiday in 1938. At the last minute he went to Prague instead as a friend had suggested the local Jewish population were in dire need of help. Quickly Winton established an office at a hotel in the city and began the finding homes in the UK for the children.

UK law meant that Jewish children under 17 were free to come to Britain so long as they had somewhere to stay and £50. So Winton advertised, begged and forced families to take the children, which was a significant challenge in of itself because the UK government was already evacuating British children from the cities to the countryside.

To this day almost half of the children saved do not know that they got to the UK via this route as they were too young to remember.

Even those that did know about Kindertransport had never heard of Nicholas Winton until the TV show 'That's Life' broadcast the story. The presenter of the show Ester Rantzen, herself Jewish, was stunned that this British hero received no recognition. The show itself was tipped off by Grete.

One might assume Winton did not want the publicity because of the guilt that his last train, containing 250 children, did not make it through Poland before Hitler invaded. Families waited at London's Liverpool Street Station but the children they had offered to care for eventually went to the gas chambers not the loving homes of the volunteers.

Actually what kept Winton quiet was his wartime generation ethos. People back then just got on with their duty rather than expecting everyone to fawn all over them. When the town of Maidenhead suggested a statue of Winton he made two requests: that he was not depicted and that he did not have to come to the unveiling. He made it clear he was sick of being hailed as a hero.

At Liverpool Street Station the memorial is a statue of Jewish children who had just arrived from Europe there is no depiction of Winton at his request.

There is only one statue of Winton in the world, it is at Prague Station, and he was rumoured to have hated it. He certainly did all he could to discourage the Czechs from making copies of it to send to other countries.

Of course all of these statues are recent. Before 1988 Winton had not bothered mentioning what he had done for 50 years. He worked for as long as he could on the rescue, and when Hitler's rampage through Europe made further transports impossible he returned to his normal life. Albeit a normal life during a war!

People are not like Nicholas Winton today, a modern version of him would want a TV crew following him. Or the children would be picked by some awful reality TV show. Either way everyone involved would be angry if they did not get at least an extra 10,000 Twitter followers for getting involved in stopping the murder of these kids.

This is not the only example of how our standards have slipped. How many times do you turn on your TV and hear “he bravely battled cancer” well in Winton's day bravery was running into machine gun fire, not surviving a disease.

In Winton's day saving the life of a child was enough reward, whereas a lump of bronze that looks a bit like you is showing off. Winton died yesterday aged 106, and a concept died too… That virtue does not need a megaphone.