Barbara Winton, the daughter of the famed British Holocaust rescuer Sir Nicholas Winton, was 34 in 1988 when the spotlight hit her family.
Though always involved in charitable work, her father had kept a very low profile, saying almost nothing about his efforts during World War II.
That changed when a BBC TV program reunited Winton with some of the 669 Czech children — most of them Jewish — he helped escape from the Nazis by arranging their safe passage to Britain and finding them homes for the war’s duration.
As Barbara Winton made clear, addressing an audience in Whippany on Jan. 28, it was wonderful for his family to finally see him honored.
Perhaps even more rewarding was to see the joy of this very undemonstrative man when he found himself seated next to the children he had rescued, now grown up and with families of their own.
“We were watching from home, and we saw him in tears,” she recalled of the BBC broadcast.
Her father died last year at the age of 106, on the anniversary of the departure of the last of the trains carrying “his” children. It was also soon after publication of her book chronicling his actions, If It’s Not Impossible…The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton. The title, she told the Whippany audience, came from his motto: “If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it.”
Winton, on a speaking tour in the United States, came to the Aidekman campus as the guest of the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest, to speak at the opening of the new exhibit celebrating “Women During the Holocaust,” part of its annual “From Memory to History” display (see sidebar).
The director of the council, Barbara Wind, met Winton last year at Oxford University in England, at a conference on anti-Semitism. Intrigued by what Winton told her about the women who worked with her father, Wind invited her to come speak.
As a young stockbroker, in 1938 Nicholas Winton had planned to go for a two-week skiing trip. Instead, he got involved in extricating children from danger as the Nazi menace closed in on the Czechs and Jews who had fled from surrounding countries. Working with the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, he began talking with desperate parents, and negotiating with the British authorities.
At the forefront of the effort to rescue both adults and children, Barbara Winton said, were some extraordinary women. In addition to some heroic Czechs, they included English academic Doreen Warriner; British Member of Parliament Eleanor Rathbone; and a Canadian, Beatrice Wellington.
Another key female figure in Sir Nicholas’s campaign was his mother, who worked tirelessly to help in the rescue effort. Barbara Winton described her grandmother as “an amazing woman, and quite scary,” and someone who relished the chance to step beyond her role as a wife and mother.
Nicholas Winton’s parents were Jews who had converted to Christianity. But because of friends and family members who had fled Germany during the 1930s, his daughter said, “he knew what Hitler was attempting to do and that there was a lot of brutality going on.”
Fifteen years after “going public” with the BBC program, he was knighted for his efforts in 2003 and showered with other honors both in Britain and the Czech Republic. None of it was of much interest to him, his daughter said.
She admitted, with obvious affection, that as admirable as his character was, “it wasn’t always attractive. He was not a saint.” But he had great powers of persuasion. “All his life, he was very good at co-opting people to do what he wanted, and he always believed that everyone would see things the way he did.”
Some of his efforts brought him into conflict with Jews. One of the organizations helping evacuate the children did so with the hope of converting them. When Jewish groups objected, Nicholas Winton asked, “Would you rather have a dead child in Prague or one alive in a Christian home?”
Among the 160 or so people present, there were a number with direct experience of the Holocaust themselves, and more with family connections to it. They included survivor Nessa Ben-Asher of Short Hills, who helped save other Jews in Poland. Susan Lubow of Morristown had three cousins who got out via the Kindertransport effort and was able to show Winton the exit visa carried by one of them.