THR's Kim Masters: The Man Who Saved My Mom From the Holocaust

Nicholas Winton - H 2015

Nicholas Winton - H 2015

Nicholas Winton, who died July 1 at 106 and was the subject of the 2013 movie 'Nicky's Family,' helped rescue hundreds of Jewish children from almost certain death by the Nazis. One of them was the mother of THR editor-at-large Masters, who writes of the complexities behind a hero.

When I first met Nicholas Winton — this was before he was "Sir Nicholas" and before he became known as "Nicky" to so many of the Jewish children he had saved from the Nazis — it did not go particularly well.

Winton, who died July 1 at the astonishing age of 106, had come to dinner at my parents' house in Bethesda, Md. It was 1996. Only a few years earlier, my mother first had learned of the role this man had played in rescuing her, then 14, and her two sisters from the Nazis. That three young girls from the tiny Czech village of Trstena found places on one of the Winton trains — the Kindertransports — had been the longest of long shots. And for 50 years, my mother Alice and her sisters, Josi and Elli, had no idea who had been responsible for delivering them to safety in England.

Winton's role in organizing this effort didn't come to light until 1988, thanks to a BBC television program that connected him, for the very first time, with some of the 669 children who owed their lives to him. The following year, my mother and father met him in London at the first reunion of Kindertransport children.

At dinner, my parents were eager to hear details of how Winton, then a 29-year-old English stockbroker, had pulled off this miraculous feat. Before Winton arrived, my father, who had made his own narrow escape from Vienna in 1939, instructed me firmly that as a journalist — a trained professional — it was my job to draw Winton out on the subject. Why my father, who could have charmed the birds from the trees, imposed this burden on me is unclear; I suspect he had already tried and failed to get Winton to talk during that earlier meeting in London.

I did my best, but Winton, impeccably polite in that British way, was immovable. Clearly uncomfortable with the interrogation, he sidestepped my questions until I had to stop asking. It was frustrating, but I ultimately had to respect his wish for privacy. My mother, now 90, remembers feeling the same way. But my father, who is no longer around to offer his version, was very angry with me. His desire to know was so powerful.

Fortunately, Winton and I would meet again, more than a decade later, when I went with my mother, then 83, and my then-10-year-old daughter to visit him at his snug house near Maidenhead, west of London. He was a young man of 99 then, living on his own and still driving. We took him to lunch at a nearby pub that he warned us was "posh," and afterward he indulged me by letting me interview him for a piece that aired on NPR. He was humorous and trenchant. When I suggested that my mother was his "child," I was his grandchild, and my daughter was his great-grandchild, he took it kindly. But my daughter was the one who charmed him. I remember him promising her fine choices for "pudding" after lunch.

Winton with a refugee child. 

Thanks to that visit — as well as a memoir written by Winton's daughter, Barbara, If It's Not Impossible..., with his cooperation — I have come to understand his reticence. In part, he simply was a private man, bewildered by the attention that was showered upon him and uncomfortable with the idea that a single episode in his life should define who he was. He also didn't think he deserved so much credit when oth­ers who worked with him and took far greater risks had been forgotten, perhaps only because they had died before their story resurfaced. And maybe he was haunted because he had failed to save another 250 children whose rescue was blocked by the Nazis on the very day of their departure. Nearly all are believed to have been killed. As the person who took on the task of finding homes for these children in England, he had photographs of each of them to remind him exactly who they were.

As his fame escalated despite his efforts to avoid it, Winton also became frustrated by distortions of the story that had taken hold — exaggerations and embellishments that he could not correct. It strikes me now that his desire to set the record straight, to resist being a hero, only made him that much more heroic. But in my interview with him, he lamented the situation. "It becomes very difficult at times," he said with chagrin, "because every time the newspapers say anything, they add a little bit of their own. It makes me completely disbelieve in history." But, he added philosophically: "Se non e vero, e ben trovato, as Mother used to say. If it's not true, it's a damn good story."

It is hard to trace where some of these inaccuracies originated, but they are rampant. In virtually every obituary, the story was relayed that Winton was so modest he never had told his wife about his role in arranging the Kindertransports. She had discovered a scrapbook in the attic, complete with lists and photographs of children who had been saved. As the story goes, Winton told her to toss it out. "You can't throw those papers away," she responded, according to the version of the story that appeared even in Winton's New York Times obituary. "They are children's lives." She then set in motion the events that led to the BBC program in which Winton finally came face-to-face with dozens of the now-adult children.

It's a wonderful story, told, among other places, in The Power of Good, a 2002 documentary by Czech filmmaker Matej Minac. But it doesn't seem to be true. Winton told me that he long had believed the scrapbook, which was given to him by an associate who helped arrange the rescue, had historical value, and he had made efforts to find a proper home for it. For years, no one expressed interest. As his daughter, Barbara, writes in her book, he eventually showed it to historian Elisabeth Maxwell, who was married to Robert Maxwell, a flamboyant newspaper baron who also happened to be a Czech Jew. So a long article about the rescue was published in the Sunday Mirror on the same day that the scrapbook was featured as part of Winton's first appearance on the BBC in 1988.

The idea that he had wanted to throw the scrapbook away clearly annoyed Winton. Since Minac’s documentary probably did the most to publicize that version of events, I emailed the filmmaker to ask why he had included it. He responded that he believes the story to be true and thinks he read it in a memoir written by one of the rescued children. And he stressed that Winton was, in fact, as modest as that tale suggests. Minac first tried to question Winton about the rescue operation in 1997 — soon after my awkward dinner — and was rebuffed. “In a way I was a bit angry for it as I paid a lot of money for transport and accommodation to visit him and I didn’t learn anything,” Minac wrote. “So I have my own experience that he really didn’t want to talk about it.”

When the BBC program That's Life! first shone the spotlight on Winton in 1988, he had gone to the studio thinking the host would talk about the rescue while he sat anonymously in the audience. His wife, Grete, expected the exercise to be dull so she watched from home. "They really had no idea what was in store," Barbara would write later, describing the show as "the ambushing of an unsuspecting innocent." At home, her mother watched, "horrified," as Winton, who had been brought up to conceal his emotions, tried to wipe away tears discreetly as he was introduced to two of his "children," seated on either side of him.

Masters’ mother, Alice.

Despite his genuine modesty, Winton deserved every accolade he got, which eventually included a knighthood. This is the unembellished story, as I understand it: In 1938, as he was about to leave for a ski vacation, a friend in Prague asked him to come and help with a burgeoning crisis there. Winton went and encountered desperate refugees — Jews and others — who had fled as the Nazis began to encroach on Czech territory. They were living in appalling conditions and seemed to have no hope as Hitler's power spread.

Others already were at work — led by a remarkable woman named Doreen Warriner — to rescue dissidents who had made it to Prague but still were being tracked by Hitler's agents. Winton, well aware of the fate that awaited the Jews, encountered parents who were asking: If they could not be helped, might something be done to save their children?

Having long known this story, I was surprised by the tears that sprang to my eyes when I read in Barbara's book of a letter that Winton wrote to his mother in January 1939, toward the end of what was supposed to be his two-week stay in Prague. He asked: "Could you go to the Immigration section of the Home Office and find out what guarantees are needed to bring a child into the country?" That simple sentence set in motion the events that led to the survival of my family and literally thousands of others who are alive today because Winton decided to take action. Imagine the audacity, the competence, the courage that it took for him to execute his plan. It was at this point that he seems to have formed his motto, which he applied to humanitarian actions throughout his long life: "If something is not impossible, then there must be a way to do it."

Once word got out that he was attempting to rescue children, parents lined up to see Winton at his hotel in Prague. He was stalked by Nazi agents, as depicted in another Matec film, the 2011 docudrama Nicky's Family. Among them was a young woman working for the Red Cross who was a spy for the Germans. The film invented a little romance between Winton and his agent, but in reality his dealings with her were perfunctory.

After three weeks in Prague, Winton returned to London and his job in January 1939. Before he left, he saw off a flight with 20 Jewish children who were being evacuated by a missionary organization with a plan to convert them to Christianity. Winton had nothing to do with that; he was merely lending a hand. But in another warp of history, a photo of him holding one of those children has become an icon of his own rescue effort.

Once back in London, he set up headquarters for his organization in his home and, with his mother's help, set about finding families to take in children. To his everlasting sorrow, other countries, including the U.S., refused to admit even one. Britain was willing to accept children, but Winton had to find families or individuals who would take in one of these foreign children and also put up £50 — the equivalent of several thousand dollars today — to ensure that the child could return home after the war. As if there would be a home to which any of them could return.

Even after Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939, many of Winton's associates remained in Prague, notably an audacious man named Trevor Chadwick. Chadwick had a way of sweet-talking the local head of the Gestapo, as well as forging documents and doing whatever was necessary to get the children — who at that point were still permitted to leave if they could find a place to go — onto the trains. Nicky's Family has Winton doing these things. But Winton felt strongly that Chadwick deserved more credit than he did, safe in London. He said the only reason Chadwick remained anonymous was that he had died in the 1970s, leaving Winton to be thrust into the spotlight when the story finally surfaced.

In 2009, Masters’ mother, Alice, along with other rescued children and their family members, rode the train from Prague to London, where they were met by a 100-year-old Winton, pictured here with Alice that same day at a reception at the Czech Embassy in London.

If you were ever to travel to my mother’s home village, you would find it hard to believe that anyone in that speck of a place could have learned of a children’s transport running from Prague, more than 300 miles away. My mother’s family had only recently moved into a house with running water and electricity. They had no telephone. Through much of my mother's childhood, news was spread by a town crier. But my mother's uncle had lived and worked in Berlin and had a firsthand look at the Nazi threat. Having moved to London, he learned of Winton's program and urged his sister — my grandmother Sidonia — to get her three girls out of the country. How he got his three nieces on Winton's list is a mystery. My mother wishes she knew. Who knows what horrors they were spared?

The members of my family who stayed behind were sent to concentration camps. My mother's older cousin Linka, who lived across the border in Poland, was sent to a camp where she was forced to watch as her 5-year-old daughter was ordered to walk onto a plank over a pit and then shot. Linka survived the war but ended her days in a mental institution. My grandparents, as they were packed onto a train headed to their deaths at the Majdanek extermination camp in Poland in 1942, surely were thankful that, three years earlier, they had tearfully sent their girls far away.

So Winton was a great hero, however uncomfortable he might have been in that role. As time passed, he seemed to resign himself to the accolades. Survivors like my mother needed the connection to him, to find a ray of decency and courage in the black expanse of inhumanity. My mother observed how "Nicky" gradually reconciled himself with his fate. "He understood the whole thing," she says. "He understood that he was getting the glory for things that many others did. But if there hadn't been a Nicky Winton, none of us would have been saved."

The real reason that her father wanted her to write her book, Barbara Winton writes, was not so people would worship him as a hero or continue to look backward. The point, he felt, was that ordinary people should recognize that "they, too, can act ethically in the world and make a positive difference to the lives of others."

Queen Elizabeth II met Winton, then 105, at a November 2014 event celebrating the opening of Holyport College in Berkshire, England.