By Rafael Medoff
WASHINGTON (JTA) — The passing on July 1 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.
Winton’s rescue work 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.
Uncertain as to how many children England would accept, Winton turned to America to play a part in the rescue effort. On May 16, 1939, he wrote directly to President Franklin D. Roosevelt about the “desperately urgent situation.” Many Czech Jewish children are “quite destitute,” he wrote, with some “homeless and starving.” If compelled to stay in Czechoslovakia, “there is no future,” he wrote. “Is it possible for anything to be done to help us with this problem in America?”
The State Department responded that there was nothing the United States could do in the matter, since “the United States Government is unable … to permit immigration in excess of that provided for by existing immigration laws.”
That answer was disingenuous. The annual quota for immigrants from Czechoslovaka was small — just 2,874 — but it was never filled during the Hitler years. In fact, during most of those years, it was less than one-third filled.
The year that Winton wrote, 1939, some 158 quota places sat unused. Thus, at least some of the children could have been brought to America within the existing quotas. But the Roosevelt administration piled on numerous bureaucratic regulations and requirements to make the application process extremely difficult and time-consuming, and the one thing Europe’s Jews did not have was time.
England has been justly criticized for its wartime policies concerning Europe’s Jews. But when it came to aiding Jewish refugees after Kristallnacht, the British actually were considerably more generous than the Roosevelt administration.
Roosevelt condemned the pogrom and extended the visitor’s visas of those German Jews who already were in the United States as tourists. But he refused to admit refugees to American territories such as Alaska or the Virgin Islands, where the quota laws did not apply.
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, on the other hand, did not condemn Kristallnacht but did agree to take in 10,000 Jewish children on the famous Kindertransports. England also gave shelter to an additional 14,000 young German Jewish women by allowing them to enter as cooks and nannies.
Eight trains organized by Winton and his friends, carrying a total of 669 children, made it out of Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1939. A ninth train, with 250 children, was scheduled to leave on Sept. 1 of that year, but the borders were sealed when Germany launched its invasion of Poland that day. Those children were never heard from again.
Winton never spoke about his rescue work, even to his wife, Grete Gjelstrup. More than 50 years later, she discovered a stack of dusty documents and photos from the Czech rescue mission in their attic. Winton very reluctantly allowed his wife to share the information with a handful of historians and journalists. As a result, late in life he was made an honorary citizen of Prague, praised in a U.S. congressional resolution and even knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. In 2009, shortly after Winton’s 100th birthday, he was reunited in an emotional ceremony with some of the children whom he saved.
The letter Winton sent to Roosevelt, however, remained a mystery until last year. In a “60 Minutes” segment broadcast in April 2014, Winton referred to the letter but mentioned that he had never been able to locate a copy. David Langbart, a staff member at the National Archives, saw the program and, after some digging, managed to locate both Winton’s letter and the administration’s reply. They were presented to him in May 2014, on the occasion of his 105th birthday.
Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, D.C.