Sir Nicholas Winton and the human cost of "peace for our time".

Nicholas Winton

It was 69 years ago this week, just after midnight on the night from 29th to 30th September 1938, that the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, his French counterpart, Edouard Daladier, Hitler and Mussolini, signed the Munich Agreement. It is now remembered as the most notorious symbol of Chamberlain's tragically flawed policy of appeasement. The "piece of paper" which he waved on his return to Heston Aerodrome, just west of London, was to be a guarantee of "peace for our time", and Czechoslovakia was the price that was to be paid, as the four most powerful men in Europe agreed to allow Nazi Germany to annex a large part of the country. The next day, German troops marched unopposed into the Sudetenland, the mainly German-speaking border regions of Czechoslovakia.

Sir Nicholas Winton
Despite the popularity of appeasement in Britain, seen as a way of avoiding a repetition of the carnage of the First World War, there were also many who were horrified by the decision to leave Czechoslovakia to its fate. Among them was the young Nicholas Winton.

"Nobody that I knew at the time, who had thought that Hitler was a menace, thought that the crisis was over. I think we were just incredulous."

And when he came to Prague a few weeks later, Nicholas Winton found a similar incredulity mixed with anger and bitterness. At the time he was working at London's stock exchange, but he was firmly left wing, and knew many leading members of the Labour Party. When Hitler marched into the Czech borderlands, he made a decision that was to transform his life. He decided to travel to Prague to help refugees who had fled to the city after the Sudetenland had been swallowed up by the Reich. The subsequent story of how he was to save nearly 700 Jewish children in what came to be known as the Kindertransports, has become legendary.

At 98, Sir Nicholas Winton - he was knighted in 2002 in honour of his service to humanity - still has the energy and sharpness of wit of someone at least thirty years his junior. During the summer, I visited him at his home near London, and over a pint of beer at the local pub, we discussed politics, past and present. It was hard to believe that at the time of Munich, Nicholas Winton was already nearly thirty years old.

The story of the refugee crisis that followed Munich and accelerated in the months preceding the outbreak of World War Two has many modern echoes. In this programme, through the memories of Sir Nicholas Winton and some of the children whose lives he saved, we shall be telling that story.

Hitler comes to power

Adolf Hitler
Events began to unfold in 1933, with Hitler's rise to power in Germany. At the time Czechoslovakia seemed an island of stability, and thousands of German opposition figures fled to the country. Among them was the family of Susanne Medas, who was later to become one of the children saved by Sir Nicholas Winton.

"My father was Richard Bernstein, and his job in Berlin was to be the political editor of Vorwaerts, which was the party paper of the Social Democrat Party. I believe that most of the editors of Vorwaerts came to Prague at the time. Some of them went on to France, but a number of them did come to Prague. In a way, as I was fortunate enough to flee with my brother, my mother and my father, it didn't seem a very drastic change, and all I do remember is that for the whole time we lived in Prague, we encountered no anti-Semitism and no hostility whatever."

The German exiles included numerous very well known figures, such as the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch and most famously of all, the novelist, Thomas Mann, the author of The Magic Mountain and Death in Venice. Czech Radio archives have a rare recording of Thomas Mann from October 1936, in which he praises Czechoslovakia's continuing commitment to democracy, while much of the region slips into dictatorship.

The Munich Agreement

Munich Agreement | Photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 183-R69173/Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 1.0
But Prague was living on borrowed time. Hitler was breathing down Czechoslovakia's neck, and with the Munich Agreement of September 1938, everything changed - not just in the Sudetenland, but even in Prague itself, as Susanne Medas, who was attending Prague's German grammar school at the time, remembers.

"I went to school one morning - this was in October 1938 - and was just going up the staircase when the girls who were standing at the top of the stairs shouted in German, 'Here comes the Jewish pig.' I was very surprised, because prior to that there was not difference between the Jewish and the non-Jewish children. When I came home and told them this, my parents decided that I wasn't going to go back to school. I found that on occupying the Sudetenland, the Germans had also been able to change the teachers in our school in central Prague. I couldn't understand why until a few years ago when I learned that it was actually a private school, so that the Czechoslovak government had no jurisdiction over it."

Prague became the focal point for tens of thousands of Czechs and Germans - many of them Jewish - fleeing the Sudetenland. The result was a refugee crisis on a huge scale.

Prague was left defenceless and the Sudetenland's new Nazi rulers were barking that once they got hold of these refugees - who were cowering, as they put it, under the protection of the Czech government - they would show no mercy. If Chamberlain had expected Munich to bring calm and stability to Central Europe, he could not have been more wrong.

The Prague writer, Lenka Reinerova, remembers.

"Because we had been a democratic republic and a neighbour of big Germany, we had a very big anti-fascist emigration here. And now came Munich, and many of these people were here. From one day to the next they were in great danger, because nobody knew what would happen during the next days. There were prominent people and unknown people, and it was necessary at that moment to get them, as soon as possible, out of the country."

Nicholas Winton comes to Prague

News of the refugee crisis reached Britain thanks to the work of several international refugee organizations active in Prague. Nicholas Winton's involvement began more or less by chance, thanks to his political engagement.

"My great friend, Martin Blake, who was a master at Westminster School, was also very left wing, and we had followed very closely what was going on on the continent. Every winter I used to take a number of his pupils to winter sports. I did it because we got a free holiday. Right at the last moment, we were going to winter sports in 1938, and he rang me up and said, 'I've cancelled it. I'm going to Prague. I think what I'm doing there will interest you. If you're interested, come and follow me.'"

And so, what was he doing?

"I don't think he had an actual brief to do anything at that time, but I think that if it really was a brief, it was to find out at first hand what was going on. And I was just tagging along."

And Prague at that time was filled with refugees from Nazi Germany and the Sudetenland, people who had fled for political or racial reasons...

"Yes. Some of the people who arrived in Prague at that time were already two times refugees. They'd fled from Germany to the Sudetenland as sanctuary. Then they'd fled again for sanctuary from the Sudetenland to Prague, and those who did not have friends or relatives were just put in Nissen huts. So things were pretty grim at that time."

And the work you were doing was to try to get these people out of Czechoslovakia. Was it clear to you and the people you spoke to in Czechoslovakia that the 'peace for our time' after Munich was not going to last?

"It was only clear insofar as that is what all my left wing colleagues felt. When you map what Hitler did in marching through Europe up to the time of the Sudetenland, and knowing what the position was at that time, you couldn't really feel that it was going to stop. Why should he stop there when everything was working in his favour. It was fairly clear to us. And, of course, there were five committees in Czechoslovakia looking after these displaced people. Now, all of them had lists of children, where the parents had signed that they were willing to let the children go. Now, all those people would not have wanted to let their children go unless they thought that something terrible was going to happen."

Yes, this was before Hitler had occupied Prague in March 1939. Technically speaking, what remained of Czechoslovakia was still a free and democratic country.

"Yes, it was before Hitler marched into Czechoslovakia."

Saving the children

Nicholas Winton
Nicholas Winton realized that it was the children who were most in danger, and this became the focus of his work.

"I was told that although there was an organization which was trying to get out the elder people, they had no permission from the British government and no financial means to get out the children. So I merely said that, if it were possible, I would do it. And in fact it wasn't really difficult. It was a lot of hard work, but it wasn't difficult, because the Home Office made no problems at all about granting visas. The only problem was to get permits for the children to enter England and to fulfil the condition laid down by the Home Office, which was that I could only bring in a child if I had a family that would look after them."

At this stage Nicholas Winton was not working in any official capacity.

"I was only in Prague on holiday from my work, and I was only there for two weeks. After an awful row with my boss, I got it extended to three weeks. But when I came back and started bringing the children out, I was still working at my job on the stock exchange. I was never free to give a hundred percent of my time to this."

The head of the British Committee for the Refugees from Czechoslovakia, Doreen Warriner, had written to Nicholas Winton's employer, a merchant bank in the City of London, asking for him to be given more time off. His boss was not much impressed, writing with some sarcasm: "I would sooner you were taking a rest here rather than doing heroic work with thousands of poor devils who are suffering through no fault of their own." So Nicholas Winton ended up working for the refugees in his spare time - from his home in Hampstead, and with the help of just one secretary. Britain's interior ministry, the Home Office, was also not particularly helpful.

German troops enter Prague

March 1939
A few weeks later, events took a dramatic turn. On 15 March 1939, German troops occupied what remained of Czechoslovakia, after Slovakia had split away under Nazi pressure. Susanne Medas remembers.

"We were standing on Wenceslas Square when the German tanks rolled in. People were given flags to wave, because we were supposed to be happy to see the Germans coming. But there was no flag-waving. On the contrary, people to the right and to the left of me were weeping. They knew, of course, very well, what was in store for them."

With Prague under direct German rule, the Gestapo began rounding up anyone considered politically unreliable, starting with those who had fled previously from Germany. Anyone who was Jewish, whether they were German or Czech, was in direct peril. A growing number of Jewish families, realizing there was little chance for the adults to escape, tried to get their children onto Nicholas Winton's lists.

At this stage Britain was not yet at war with Germany, and amazingly the German authorities did nothing to stop Nicholas Winton continuing his work.

"There was no opposition from the Nazis at all. There are pictures which you can see, where the Gestapo were helping to put the children onto the trains."

By train to England

Nicholas Winton's kindertransport
The children were sent in a series of special trains to England. One of them was Susanne Medas.

"We arrived in England at the beginning of July, and many of us have very clear memories of Liverpool Street Station, which now looks quite different. We were taken into a large waiting room or drill hall. We had labels round our necks with a number, but also with our destination, like a parcel. On my label it said Cambridge, because I was destined to go to Cambridge.

"I remember that a young American student, who also spoke German, came along, and she took myself and two other much younger children to the train, and we went by train to Cambridge.

"I was nearly sixteen, I was very confident, but there was a little girl of five who was anything but fearless. She could only speak Czech, so she clung to me. When we arrived at Cambridge the idea was that she should go straight to her foster family, a charming young couple who were at the station to meet her. But she wouldn't let go of my hand, so I was asked if I would mind if we first went to that family. I didn't mind at all. We got to the house. The people were so nice and the little girl was sweet, and they had prepared her room with friezes and toys and everything else, but she wasn't letting go of my hand. Eventually they had a teddy bear, and they showed it to her, and she had to let go of my hand to hold this toy. Then the young American girl motioned to me that perhaps it was time that we left.

"My new foster parents came to collect me and it was so embarrassing for them as well as for myself, because they were a newly married couple and they were kissing and cuddling, and there I was in the same room with them. I didn't stay with this family very long, because I knew that there was a refugees' committee. I went to the refugees' committee, to a remarkable woman called Rita Burkhill, who found another family for me."

Photo: Library of History of Paris
Susanne Medas had originally come from Germany, but many of the other children were from Czech Jewish families. Among them were Alice Klimova and Ruth Rulcova, both of whom we have interviewed in the past on Radio Prague.

Alice Klimova: "My sister was too old. She was already sixteen, so I went instead of her. This is how I got onto that children's transport. By pure coincidence my sister managed to get onto the next transport, so we were able to be there both. She was more than a sister. She was a mother to me. I was very fortunate to have her there because absolutely nobody from the family survived."

Ruth Rulcova: "I was seven at the time. I don't remember much about the journey. It was a train journey and then on the boat. I do remember standing on the platform at - probably - Victoria Station with a big label on a piece of string round my neck with my name. And then somebody claimed me, this strange couple, elderly people, with a grown-up daughter and... a strange thing... we never have tea with milk here. I never drank tea with milk, and they took me for a cup of tea. They offered me a cup of tea and I said 'Yes'. I didn't want milk. And then it was this strange black thick stuff. It was horrible and I couldn't put enough sugar in it. And it still tasted terrible. So that was my first experience of English tea."

A tragic fate

Back in Prague the children's parents faced a grim future. Susanne Medas:

"I got to England at the beginning of July, and war didn't break out until 3rd September, so there was the whole of July and August. During that time I received some postcards and letters from my parents in Prague. That stopped, of course, as soon as the war broke out and to my great surprise, in January 1940, I received a postcard from my father in Oslo in Norway. I couldn't understand what my parents were doing in Norway, but I found out again many years later that the Czechoslovak Red Cross had managed to get out of Czechoslovakia some of these German anti-Nazis who were most threatened, who had been refugees from Germany already. So my parents were in Oslo, but, unfortunately, when the Germans occupied Norway my parents were taken to Auschwitz, where they died."

Like Susanne Medas, Alice Klimova, did not find out about the fate of her parents until after the war.

"It didn't sink in, actually, what happened. Absolutely nobody survived. Only slowly, after I had my first child, I realized what it means to have parents, grandparents for my children, somebody to lean on, to have a background, and that's why I said, my sister was always such a help."

It is a story that we hear again and again. Sir Nicholas Winton:

"I don't think any of the parents survived - perhaps an occasional one or two. As far as I'm concerned it's a tragedy. On the other hand, it does prove that we took the right children out."

Photo: USHMM
The story of the children's transports has another tragic twist. All through the summer of 1939 the transports continued, but on 1st September, Germany invaded Poland. Two days later, Britain declared war on Germany.

"My work stopped the day war broke out. We had 250 children on Wilson Station in Prague on 3rd September, which was our biggest transport. War broke out and it was all over, nothing more could be done. I was told that none of those children survived. I occasionally hear stories of one or two, who they say had been on that train and did survive, but I don't know."

In the transports that did get out 669 children were saved. Many are still alive today, now in their 70s and 80s. When I joined a group of the children at a reunion in Prague in 2002, I found it deeply moving. Many have gone on to become high achievers, like the journalist Joe Schlesinger, the writer Vera Gissing, or the filmmaker Karel Reisz, who died five years ago. But what is perhaps still more moving is to think that Nicholas Winton's children today have their own children and grandchildren - several thousand in total - all of whom are alive today in defiance of the insane logic of the Holocaust.