The lives he saved

Alice Masters, center, and Barbara Winton, right, discuss the hundreds of Jewish children saved in 1938 by Sir Nicholas Winton, projected above them. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
Alice Masters, center, and Barbara Winton, right, discuss the hundreds of Jewish children saved in 1938 by Sir Nicholas Winton, projected above them.
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

The story of how Sir Nicholas Winton saved hundreds of Czechoslovakian children during World War II has become a viral sensation.

“He saved 669 children during the Holocaust … and he doesn’t know they’re sitting next to him!” screams one headline that has made the rounds on social media. But just how Winton rescued all those Jewish children by arranging for their transport to the United Kingdom is remarkable, even without the clickbait headlines that lead to a video of Winton being reunited with the children he rescued during a 1988 taping of the BBC program That’s Life.

Daughter and biographer Barbara Winton was joined by Alice Masters, one of the rescued children, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on Jan. 21 to discuss the legacy of the man they cherished.

Winton accidentally became the “British Schindler” — a reference to Oskar Schindler, who is credited with saving more than 1,000 Jews during World War II — accidentally. In the winter of 1938, he was scheduled to travel to Switzerland for a skiing holiday. When the outing was canceled, having already taken two weeks off from work, he joined a friend, Martin Blake, in Prague, his daughter explained, Blake was an associate of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia.

Barbara Winton recalled that her father saw a distinct lack of services being provided to children. But rather than weeping, as another colleague did, he set to work arranging for Jewish children to be put on kindertransports to the United Kingdom. His mother, who was born a German Jew but converted to Christianity, helped him from the United Kingdom by securing permission from the Home Office to bring the children into the country.

Masters, who lives in Bethesda, was put on one of the trains along with her two sisters in a moment that was dramatized in the 2011 movie Nicky’s Family.

“Most of the people in the village would say, ‘You don’t have to send the children away, nothing is going to happen here.’ But my mother knew what was going on in Europe so they decided to go ahead and try to put us on the train.”

Masters’ parents knew what was going on because her mother’s brother fled from Berlin to London in the 1930s. The sisters thought that they were going to live with him, but when they arrived they discovered that since he himself was a refugee, he could not take them in. Instead they went to live in a group home with other Jewish children, most of whom were German.

Though her time in the group home was happy, Masters worried about her parents and family trapped back home. Her parents perished in the camps, and the Holocaust museum recently unearthed documentation verifying their deaths.

Masters donated to the museum clothing her mother had handstitched for her and a blanket her father purchased for his girls just before they went to the train station where they saw each other for the last time.

Like many of the rescued children, Masters did not know the name of the man who saved her until much later.

Winton didn’t go about touting his rescue efforts. But in 1988, when his wife discovered his records from the kindertransports in the attic of their home, they decided to turn the scrapbook over to Elisabeth Maxwell, a Holocaust researcher. The wider world got a glimpse of his scrapbook when host of That’sLife, Esther Rantzen, featured Winton in two episodes of the BBC program.

Barbara Winton recalled that her mother didn’t attend the first taping, thinking that the show would follow the same formula as previous episodes. When she saw her husband introduced to a survivor during the airing of the first episode, she suspected something big was in store for the second and was by her husband’s side at that taping.

It is that second episode that has been so popular online.

In the video, Rantzen asks, “Can I ask if there’s anyone else in our audience tonight who owes their life to Nicholas Winton? If so, could you stand up please?”

More than a dozen men and women stand. An overcome Winton can be seen marveling at them before wiping tears away from both eyes.

Winton formed close friendships with many of the children, including Masters. The children still gather for reunions and even took a commemorative train ride from the Czech Republic to London to mark Winton’s 100th birthday.

“My father wasn’t someone who talked about the past. He was not particularly interested — and it’s quite ironic that for someone who wasn’t particularly interested in talking about the past, he spent the last 25 years being interviewed incessantly about the past,” Barbara Winton said to laughter from the audience.

“But he took it in good spirits and tried to use that interest to convince people that if they were interested in what he’d done then maybe they should think about what they should do to make a difference themselves.”

Barbara Winton chronicled her father’s actions in her book If It’s Not Impossible …: The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton. She was able to share a draft of the book with her father before he died last July at age 106.

Of all the good that her father did in his life, perhaps his greatest legacy, Barbara Winton believes, lives on in the more than 6,000 descendants of the 669 children he rescued.

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