This sermon was given by Rabbi Sybil Sheridan at West London Synagogue (WLS) following a memorial service at London’s Guildhall for Sir Nicholas Winton, who rescued hundreds of children from the Holocaust in the months before World War Two.
“… the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
This passage from George Elliot’s Middlemarch, is found in our WLS prayerbook before Kaddish. It would have summed up the life of a man whose memorial service I attended yesterday… if he had his wish.
He lived a hidden life – until the day he was outed as a hero – something he was never happy with. And as a consequence his tomb will be visited for many years to come.
I am talking about Sir Nicholas Winton, (Nicky) famous for rescuing 669 children from Prague in the weeks before the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. He died last year at the age of 106 and, yesterday would have been his 107th birthday.
Born in Hampstead in 1909 he had a typical middle class upbringing. He initially worked in banking and then spent three years on the stock exchange before entering business.
It was December 1938 and Nicky was getting ready to go on a skiing trip when he received a call from a friend working in Prague, asking him to come urgently. Hitler had just invaded the Sudetenland and many Jews fled to Prague, terrified of what would happen to them under Nazi control. Nicholas Winton had just spent a year in Germany. He had seen what was happening there.
They visited a refugee camp and Nicholas determined he would do what he could to save the children he saw there.
So, back in England, he started his campaign; persuading the government to take the children, finding guarantors and arranging the transport by train and boat. Over eight months, he and a small band of volunteers managed eight trainloads of children. The ninth – the largest of all – was sitting in Prague station when the Nazis invaded. These children were never heard of again.
When war started, Nicky, a pacifist, joined the Red Cross and then the RAF in order to train pilots in night flying. After the war, he worked for the international Refugee Organisation in their Reparations Department, his job, – to turn Nazi stolen loot into currency, primarily for the Jewish Agency in Palestine. He then moved to the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development where, in 1948 he met his wife, Grete.
They returned to England and settled in Maidenhead, where they had three children. Here, he demonstrated again the immense power of a ‘hidden life.’ The third of their children was born with Downs’s syndrome. Appalled by the lack of provision of understanding of such children, he founded the Maidenhead Mentally Handicapped Association – the organization that eventually became MenCap. He joined Rotary, he volunteered for the Samaritans and he arranged for the building of Abbeyfield homes in the area. He was awarded an MBE for his work with Mencap in 1983.
All this time, no one knew of what he had done before the war.
‘I didn’t keep it a secret,’ he said,’ I just didn’t talk about it.’
Then, one day, Grete was searching for something up in the attic, when she came across a box. She opened it. Inside it were books of names and photographs of children. She had no idea what it was and asked Nicholas who told her the whole story.
Greta said they should try and find the children he had rescued – that maybe, the details he had written down, – and their photographs – were all that they had left of their former life and family.
He was not so sure, but, Esther Rantzen got wind of the story and set him up in the TV programme ‘That’s life’. He was made to sit in the front row. Knowing nothing of what was going on, he was really cross to be separated from his wife and sat between two strangers, but as the programme progressed, one of his neighbours and then the other told him, on camera, that he had saved their life. Then Esther asked if there were anyone else in the audience had been saved by Nicholas Winton, to stand up. The entire audience got to its feet and so the story became public.
Yesterday, at the memorial service, Esther Ranzten recreated that moment; asking those present who owe their life to Sir Nicholas Winton to stand up. Some 100 people did so – not just the children he rescued, but their children and grandchildren. Each one of them alive, because of him.
Lord Alfred Dubbs, whose bill for the immigration of children to the UK passed in the commons just two week ago, was one of those rescued by Sir Nicholas Winton. It was his own experience of being rescued that motivated him in his fight for refugee children. Theresa May was also at the memorial service, as the MP for Maidenhead. Two politicians on opposite sides of the immigration debate, but in absolute agreement about the extraordinary achievement of the man they were honouring.
There is a statue to Sir Nicholas Winton on a platform on Maidenhead station. He is sitting on one of the benches reading a book. The book is a map of Europe and on it there is a train steaming its way from Prague to London. Every time I take the train to come to this synagogue I see his statue, memorial to the fact that one person – in spite of all the complications of the world… One person can make a difference.
Nicky remained modest and unassuming for his whole life. “Anyone would have done it” he repeatedly said – and despite his evident pleasure at being reunited with the children he had saved he never forgave Esther Rantzen for what she did.
He once said: “Active goodness is the giving of one’s time and energy in the alleviation of pain and suffering…”
We can all be actively good, even if we don’t live quite as long a life as he did.
Zichrono livrachah, may his memory be for a blessing