Visitors to Prague railway station are often intrigued by the group of bronze sculptures that stand on Platform One. It is a forlorn scene — a bespectacled man holding a crying child, a sad-looking little girl and a battered suitcase.
These striking figures form the Sir Nicholas Winton Memorial Sculpture and tell the story of the Czech Kindertransport and in particular the “British Schindler” who spirited 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia to London in 1939 from under the noses of the German invaders.
More than any other living Jewish person, Sir Nicholas Winton, who has just turned105, represents Britain’s most famous living link to the Holocaust. Since his story was rediscovered by the BBC, he has been lavished with honours, knighted by the Queen and is now a nominee for a Nobel Peace Prize. The torrent of books, films and documentaries about him seem to be never ending.
This week he was honoured again at a magnificent ceremony in Prague Castle where the wheelchair-bound retired banker received the highest award that the Czech Republic could bestow — the Order of the White Lion, presented by the Czech President himself.
It was a splendidly Ruritanian affair. Sir Nicholas was flanked by an honour guard, serenaded by a choir and orchestra, and met by a handful of the tearful survivors of those journeys holding pictures of themselves as children in 1939.
But there is something very wrong with all this. The problem is right there in the bronze tableau at the railway station — for nothing remotely like this ever happened. Sir Nicholas was never at the railway station to see the children off, so he cannot have held any of them in his arms. Nor was he in any real danger himself. He only spent three weeks in Prague over the Christmas break in 1938 and left before the Germans arrived.
Instead it was a handful of non-Jews who ran far greater personal risks, spent months behind enemy lines carrying forged documents and whose selfless efforts led to the rescue of many thousands of Jews and non-Jews alike.
The real story behind the modern-day retelling of the Prague Kindertransport refugee trains is one of cynicism, and — unforgivably — the airbrushing out of historical memory of genuinely selfless English heroes for the sake of political expediency.
To his credit, Sir Nicholas himself has never denied that most of the credit should go to others. He himself struck a discordant note at the Prague ceremony when he said in his thank you speech “in a way I shouldn’t have lived so long to give everyone the opportunity to exaggerate in the way they are doing today.”
First let us go back to the end of 1938 when the Germans had moved into the Sudetenland and seemed on the brink of taking over the rest of Czechoslovakia. At the time Prague thronged with refugees.
A motley group of well-meaning English Quakers, liberals and sundry do-gooders had already been in the country for some months helping the refugees operating under the umbrella of an organisation called the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia (BCRC). They were organising the flight of anyone whose life might be in danger. These included Jews, socialists, social democrats and communists.
One of the most formidable of these was a young London academic called Doreen Warriner. She ran the BCRC office on Vorsilska Street where the rescuers were based. She helped thousands to escape. A typical exploit would involve guiding groups of women with children with forged papers from the railway stations to cheap accommodation in safe hostels and hotels. And this after the German army entered Prague.
Much later her name appeared on a Gestapo arrest list, and she had to flee the country, but not after many nerve-wracking travels through a city teeming with Germans and refugees, all the while carrying forged documents.
One man who definitely did accompany children onto trains was Trevor Chadwick. He was a teacher at a school in Swanage, Dorset and had come to Prague to bring two Jewish refugee boys to places at the school. In the event, they took a third child who was also Jewish — Chadwick’s mother provided the £50 guarantee. He also ran many personal risks carrying forged documentation for refugees, and he also organised many flights for refugees back to England, though these have never been given the same publicity as the train transports.
There were others — civil servant Nicholas Stopford, Canadian Beatrice Wellington, translator Josephine Pike and (probable) intelligence agent Bill Barazetti. They organised the trains, interviewed the families and sent the details and photographs of each child back to London.
All of these people had been helping refugees for months when in late December 1938 Nicholas Winton, a young stockbroker from a well-to-do Jewish family, arrived on a skiing holiday but changed his plans. Operating out of the BCRC offices, he decided to launch his own evacuation focusing exclusively on Jewish children.
Under pressure from leading British Jews, the Conservative politician Sir Samuel Hoare had agreed to allow 10,000 to be admitted to Britain. The bureaucracy for all this was in chaos, but Winton was energetic and well-connected. When he returned to London after his Christmas break, he began to lobby the Home Office for permits, found guarantors for the £50 bond for each child, and organised the photos and dossiers on each child onto those willing to accommodate them. This involved skulldeggery, and as he has admitted, forgery and blackmail.
Winton — whose birth name was Wortheimer — worked closely with the Prague volunteers and made a major contribution, but it was not that remarkable in a wartime context and hardly the Pimpernel-like story of derring-do that it became 60 years later. Indeed his own role was largely forgotten until the mid-1980s.
Then the version casting Nicholas Winton as a hero was born when BBC TV presenter Esther Rantzen arranged a tear-jerker of a reunion. It was brilliant TV and repeated again and again. The political potential of this story was not lost on New Labour’s spin doctors, and they figured out how the Nicholas Winton story could be hitched to Labour’s unpopular mass immigration policy.
By 2002 a number of factors were coming together that would lift Nicholas Winton from obscurity into a household name. The government of Tony Blair was about to sign Britain up to a huge expansion of the European Union which would allow the citizens of 13 new member states to flood into Britain.
This secret, undiscussed policy of mass immigration would trigger huge resentment. Labour desperately needed political cover for its policy and was promoting refugee sob stories that served that purpose. Suddenly a market opened up for books, films, plays, articles, and documentaries, and the Nicholas Winton story was in the right place at the right time. Films and books about him duly followed.
A letter of gratitude from Tony Blair to Nicholas Winton was presented at the premiere of one of these films, and the coming expansion of Europe was the theme of the occasion. Winton was aged 93 when he was knighted by the Queen at the end of 2002.
One who milked the story for all it is worth is Slovak/Jewish film director Matěj Mináč who has made a feature film, a drama documentary, and a separate documentary all on this one subject. Of Sir Nicholas he has said “He did what any decent person should have done but didn’t.”
Except of course that many brave non-Jews did participate in the evacuation of refugees, including Jews. But nowhere will you find their role mentioned in his films. For that is a feature of all of the publicity: at no time is the contribution or even the names of the non-Jews involved in the episode ever mentioned.
Indeed it was not until 2010 when one of the grown up children of Trevor Chadwick took it upon himself to publish his own book about his father that the full story came out. Unable to find a commercial publisher, Mr Chadwick published it himself. The book is called The Rescue of the Prague Refugees and was self-published through Matador in 2010. It is now out of print and he himself has passed away.
His book tells the story of all those volunteers who took part in the Kindertransport, but there is no hiding a tone of subdued anger at the way his father’s contribution has been ignored. He writes: “Some people have not been given sufficient credit for what they achieved; some have been credited with slightly more than the facts might warrant. … One has been given huge credit for the deeds of others. I hope this book will help to set the record straight.”
The Association of Jewish Refugees reviewed the book and conceded the misrepresentation. Their reviewer wrote, “The key figure in the rescue of the Czech refugees was Doreen Warriner. … What Winton did not do was personally spirit the Jews away from under the noses of the Germans and their collaborators.”
One final irony. One of Britain’s most effective lobbyists for multiculturalism and mass immigration was one of the children on that Kindertransport. He changed his name, became a Labour MP called Alf Dubs, and now sits in the House of Lords as Lord Dubs. In the eighties and nineties, his driving political concern was the opening up of Britain’s borders to refugees from around the world. He lobbied relentlessly for more multiculturalism while on the boards of a clutch of leading left-wing organisations such as Liberty, the Refugee Council, the Immigrant advisory Service and many other organisations including our main government broadcasting regulator.
As with Doreen Lawrence, another secular saint in the pantheon of political correctness, the urge to shower more honours on Sir Nicholas is beginning to look not so much hysterical as unhinged. In 2009 a special “Winton Train” featuring a specially designed headboard and carrying survivors of that Jewish flight left Prague for London.
In 2010 yet another statue to him was unveiled, this time on the platform at Maidenhead in England. Later that same year the British government announced he had been made a Hero of the Holocaust.
He is now part of the school curriculum, and a Czech school and even a planet have been named after him. Today Sir Nicholas is busier than ever and you can be sure that if there is any event celebrating the contribution of migrants, his name will be invoked.