When Nicholas Winton, the British rescuer of Jews, was rebuffed by the U.S.
Nicholas Winton waiting to greet his surviving evacuees at Liverpool Street railway station in London, Sept. 4, 2009. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON (JTA) — This week’s passing of Nicholas Winton, the London stockbroker who rescued more than 600 Jewish children from the Nazis on the eve of World War II, has drawn attention to the phenomenon of ordinary individuals who risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust.
Winton’s story is also a reminder of some often overlooked contrasts between British and American responses to the plight of Europe’s Jewish refugees.
The most widely known examples of such rescuers are Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish businessman who sheltered Jews in Nazi-occupied Budapest; Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who protected Jews by using them as employees in his factories; and Varian Fry, the American journalist who organized the smuggling of some 2,000 refugee artists and writers from Vichy France.
But in recent years, the stories of some previously unheralded individuals have come to light.
An HBO documentary film came out last year about Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, a Jewish couple from Philadelphia who brought 50 children from Vienna to the United States in 1939. A documentary is in the works about the Rev. Waitstill Sharp and his wife, Martha, a Unitarian couple from Massachusetts who undertook rescue operations in German-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939 and then joined Fry’s rescue network in France.
Winton’s rescue work likewise came to public attention only relatively recently. The son of German Jewish immigrants to England who had converted to Christianity, Winton became involved in the refugee cause almost on a whim. Alerted that several of his friends had become involved in Jewish refugee relief work in Czechoslovakia, Winton flew to Prague in 1939 to see what they were doing. He ended up taking charge of a remarkable mission to smuggle hundreds of Jewish children out of the country in the months following the Kristallnacht pogrom.
The Nazis had taken over the western Czech region known as the Sudetenland as a result of the September 1938 Munich Pact. Then, in early 1939, the Germans occupied the rest of the country. The approximately 350,000 Jews of Czechoslovakia now braced to share the fate suffered by Jews in Germany and Austria.
Winton realized the possibility of finding havens would be greater if they focused on children. His group, the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, Children’s Section, raced against the clock to find foster homes for Czech Jewish children, raise funds to bribe German and Czech border officials, and forge exit papers.
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