LONDON — When Barbara Winton began writing her biography of her father, Sir Nicholas Winton, she had initially thought not to include an event that was, for many thousands of people, the most important episode of his life.
In 1939, Nicholas Winton — known to friends as Nicky — was responsible for saving the lives of 669 children, mostly Jews, from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. This short nine-month period has come to define him in many people’s eyes, yet, as Winton emphasizes in her book, “If it’s Not Impossible,” not in his.
In late February, the book was the subject of a session at Jewish Book Week in London, in which Winton took part. Its launch was a major event last May at Hay, Britain’s foremost literary and arts festival and, more recently.
Talking on the phone with the Times of Israel from her Herefordshire, England home, Winton explains she realized that telling the story of the rescue operation was essential, despite it being widely known. She decided to use it as “a kind of pivot… one to explain how he got to be the person, [a young stockbroker at the time] who at 29, had all those motivations and abilities to do [what he did].”
Daughter Barbara wanted to demonstrate that his life went on thereafter; that he was the same person, with the same sense of motivation. Even though what he achieved in later life was less dramatic, it was always on the same impulse.
Today, there are approximately 6,000 people in the world who owe their lives to the actions, energy and commitment of Nicky Winton — the descendants of those children he managed to save.
Winton, the son of German Jewish immigrant parents, was born in May 1909 in London. To better integrate into British culture, the family changed its name from Wertheim and converted to Christianity.
In December 1938, Winton responded to a phone call from his friend, Martin Blake, with whom he had been due to go on a skiing holiday. Instead, Blake had gone to Prague to help the vast number of Jewish refugees who had fled to the city after Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland. Blake urged Winton to assist him.
Winton in fact took the lead and over the next nine months managed to persuade the Home Office in Britain to agree to eight evacuations of Czech children by train from Prague to London’s Liverpool Street station, where he had lined up foster families for the children.
The ninth — and largest — transport with 250 children was due to leave on 1 September 1939, but the train was canceled hours before its scheduled departure. Germany had invaded Poland and the Czech border was closed. The majority of these children are thought to have died in concentration camps.
However, this extraordinary story did not come into the public domain until 50 years later. Nicky had owned a scrapbook that contained all the original documents, correspondence and data from this period. His search for a home for it led him, and it, to the attention of a popular, weekly BBC television program, “That’s Life!”
In February 1988, the rescue story was featured and Winton was invited to watch the show from among the studio audience.
Barbara Winton writes that nothing was the same again for her father after February 27, 1988, when TV presenter Esther Rantzen announced live on air that the people in the audience sitting around Nicky Winton were some of the children he had saved.
It was an overwhelming, unexpected and emotional moment and became the catalyst for an outpouring of written material, tributes and accolades, including a knighthood in 2003 and receipt of the Order of the White Lion, the Czech Republic’s highest state honor, in 2014, at the age of 105.
Nicky is prone to controlling his emotions — “It’s an upbringing thing,” explains Winton. “He may not show it on the outside but that doesn’t mean it isn’t felt.” Despite this, the television footage shows him subtly trying to wipe away his tears, when one of his “children” threw her arms around him, saying “thank you, thank you.”
Winton’s book is her attempt at balancing some of what has been previously written about her father.
“There were some ideas that weren’t really true, that were becoming the story,” she says. She felt it was important to distinguish between the man and the oft-perceived mythical hero figure – sometimes labeled “Britain’s Schindler.”
‘If something is not impossible, then there must be a way to do it’
She says her father’s wish was that the biography should not promote him as any kind of hero, a role he has always been reluctant to take. Instead, his hope is that it might inspire people to act ethically and make a difference in the lives of others. In fact, the book’s title refers to Nicky’s motto that he later lived by: “If something is not impossible, then there must be a way to do it.”
Father Nicky still lives in the family home in Maidenhead, near London, and in May will celebrate his 106th birthday. As source material, Winton had access to Nicky’s letters, diaries, documents and photographs. She says she was fortunate in that “I had a lot of first hand material which is why I used so many quotes. I recognized that people would prefer to hear his authentic voice so I used it as much as I could.”
She talked to family and friends in order to construct a full — and unsentimental — account of his whole life; exploring the events that may have had an influence on his character. The process of researching and writing the book has, undoubtedly, led to a greater understanding of her father. Delving into his early life also revealed a surprise: the discovery that an aunt of his had been a World War I German spy.
Winton became an honorary father figure for many of those who had lost their families. Over the years he has been contacted and visited by many of his “children” and their relatives. Some offspring may have felt threatened by such demands on their father’s time and attention, but Winton is adamant that she did not. Instead, she found it rather pleasing, she says.
After her mother’s death in 1999, Winton became more involved in supporting and helping her father with this aspect of his life and could “recognize some of the profound attachments that had developed.”
Winton portrays her father as a pragmatic, resolute man — a socialist and a self-proclaimed agnostic with a sense of justice. In many ways he seems to see his post-war activities as having a more profound impact than his earlier actions.
His work for the International Refugee Organization (IRO) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), for example left an indelible mark, and was, says Winton, “an astonishing episode,” which involved organizing and processing the stolen possessions and valuables of those who had been killed in the camps.
By choice, a different pace marked his subsequent professional and personal life.
Meeting and marrying Grete Gjelstrup in 1948 was a turning point and Winton says that he felt that his life really started when he met her. His daughter says it is hard “for us as outsiders, even me, to get a sense of how fulfilling his life was as a family man.”
He worked in the finance departments for a number of companies but his desire, single-mindedness and ability to create change did not diminish. Instead it was redirected into his considerable charitable work.
It is hard ‘for us as outsiders, even me, to get a sense of how fulfilling his life was as a family man’
Winton says that the book took her about three years to complete. The main challenge was that she was working on it in her spare time. She is a complementary therapist by profession and admits that she had never embarked on anything like this before, “so I didn’t really know how to do it, I kind of flailed along a bit.”
Winton says her father believes that people make very few decisions in their lives; that they respond to situations.
“I think he feels that is how his life went, mostly. He says he’s only made a couple of decisions in his entire life, one of which was to marry my mother.”