US National Archives finds historic Winton letter to FDR

US National Archives finds historic Winton letter to FDR

’60 Minutes’ report spurs archivist’s search for 1939 missive from Sir Nicholas Winton to US president Franklin Roosevelt asking for help in saving Jewish children

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

A young Nicholas Winton with a rescued child. (photo credit: Courtesy of Menemsha Films)
A young Nicholas Winton with a rescued child. (photo credit: Courtesy of Menemsha Films)

A letter written by Sir Nicholas Winton in May 1939 asking President Franklin Roosevelt to allow Czech refugee children in to the United States has been found in the Department of State records at the National Archives.

In a “60 Minutes” broadcast on CBS in April, journalist Bob Simon interviewed Winton, who turned 105 years old on May 19, about his role in saving 669 children (most of them Jewish) from the Nazis. During the interview, Winton mentioned the letter and expressed his disappointment that his plea was ignored.

“But the Americans wouldn’t take any, which is a pity. We could’ve got a lot more out,” he told Simon.

Following the broadcast, David Langbart, an archivist at the National Archives and Record Administration who has family members who died in the Holocaust, decided to find the missive. Langbart managed to locate the letter, whose whereabouts had not been known for decades. The discovery excited many people, including Vanessa Fica, who co-produced the “60 Minute” segment.

“Winton scholars and even his own children were shocked when we told them the letter had been found. I am grateful that Winton… will be able to see his letter for the first time in 75 years,” she was quoted as saying on the “60 Minutes” blog.

It was not until the late 1980s that the world became aware of how Winton, who was a young London stockbroker before the war, dropped everything to start up a refugee committee operation in Prague in early 1939. After working tirelessly to get children out of Czechoslovakia on kindertransports to England and Sweden, Winton joined the RAF when the war broke out. After the war, he settled down and started a family and didn’t speak of what he had done. The children he saved did not know who had rescued them, or were too young to remember.

Sir Winton (photo credit: CC-BY-SA Hynek Moravec, Wikimedia Commons)
Sir Winton (photo credit: CC-BY-SA Hynek Moravec, Wikimedia Commons)

Since the story of the “British Schindler” became known, Winton has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth and celebrated worldwide. He has been interviewed on television, and both documentary and feature films have been made about him.

Last year, efforts were made in the Czech Republic to nominate Winton for a Nobel Peace Prize, and recently it was announced that the Czech Republic is bestowing upon him the Order of the White Lion, the country’s highest order.

“Perhaps people in America do not realize how little is being and has been done for refugee children in Czechoslovakia,” Winton wrote to Roosevelt in the letter dated May 16, 1939. “Is it possible for anything to be done to help us with this problem in America?… It is hard to state our case forcibly in a letter, but we trust to your imagination to realize how desperately urgent the situation is.”

Documents discovered during Langbart’s search indicate the White House passed Winton’s request to the Department of State. It in turn instructed the US Embassy in London to acknowledge receipt of Winton’s letter, but to “advise him that the United States Government is unable, in the absence of specific legislation, to permit immigration in excess of that provided for by existing immigration laws.”

The letter to Winton from the US Embassy in London is found today in his personal scrapbook.

Sir Nicholas Winton with some of the rescued 'children.' (photo credit: Courtesy of Menemsha Films)
Sir Nicholas Winton with some of the rescued ‘children.’ (photo credit: Courtesy of Menemsha Films)
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