Nicholas Winton

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Barbara Winton is the daughter of Sir Nicholas Winton and gives talks about him, his legacy and its resonance with today's world.
 

13th December 2017

Sometimes I complain about the internet and the effect it has on people, so many negative stories and trolls to make you feel isolated and anxious, but I also know that it can bring enormous positives of contact and fellowship.

I joined Twitter a year or so ago. At some times I wonder why but at others I also am very glad to see items of news and of interest that I would not have otherwise known about. Very occasionally I see something that brings joy and excitement. And on 3 rd December one of the latter popped into my Twitter feed.

A short digression: We all know that You Tube is a vast warehouse of cat videos, pop stars, talks, news items, old TV shows and so on and browsing it can lead from hilarious to tragic and back again in short order. One video which has been watched over 38 million times since it was uploaded in 2009 is an edited clip of two That's Life programmes from February/March 1988. Here the host Esther Rantzen surprised Nicky with the first introduction to several of his ‘rescued children' – Vera Gissing and Milena Grenfell-Baines, followed by a piece from the following week when there are 40 or so “children” in the audience to surprise him once again.

Whenever I am somewhere speaking about Nicky and mention this clip, many of the audience will say they‘ve seen it, so I know its wide appeal. But it has always been somehow unsatisfactory. It does not show the full piece from that first week and the context of the introductions, or the other ‘children' who were there also at that first meeting.

So my Twitter feed on 3 rd December contained a tweet from one Neil Jones who professed an interest in my father's story and who kindly informed me that there was now a clip of the whole segment of That's Life on You Tube. It's findable as That's Life Nicholas Winton Tribute. Watching it was fabulous as there for the first time since actually watching it live in 1988, I saw the other two ‘children' who appeared in that segment.

One was Hanus Schnabl, who became a good friend of my father, and the other Rudi Wessely, who was the first ‘child' my father had ever met. They discovered each other in 1983 while both were volunteers for Abbeyfield, the charity that builds homes for the elderly. Sitting next to each other at a meeting, Nicky enquired into Rudi's accent and was told that he had come to the UK from Czechoslovakia on a children's transport in 1939. My father's reply: that he had been involved in organising that and indeed, had some papers at home with the names of the children who had been brought over, led to further investigation. Phone calls and letters confirmed Rudi's name was on my father's list and celebrated him finding out at last how he had come to arrive in the UK. But after that their relationship remained Abbeyfield based – it was both their passions. So of course when my father was invited to That's Life, he mentioned Rudi, who was swiftly invited to attend.

All those ‘children' who discovered their history from that point on, talked to their own children about the Kindertransport and over the years many second-generation children met my father and learnt about what had been accomplished by a few determined individuals. An action that led directly to them being alive today. Many of them do amazing things in their own right and it gave my father huge pleasure to learn about what they have contributed to the world. Rudi's son, Simon, is one such – the renowned psychiatrist Professor Sir Simon Wessely, who was President of the Royal Society of Psychiatrists (2014-17) and is now President of the Royal Society of Medicine. Like many whose family have refugee heritage, he supports action to help today's refugees. Here is a link to his powerful and compelling blog on the subject which I highly recommend reading, as another positive contribution on the internet: http://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2017/02/10/simon-wessely-on-why-we-shouldnt-close-the-child-refugee-scheme/

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16 August 2017

Llanwrtyd Wells – home of the Czech school in Britain from 1943-45 .

On a rare sunny August day while meandering into central Wales for a walk in the hills, we found ourselves in Llanwrtyd Wells, the self-proclaimed smallest town in Britain. It was my first visit for quite a while and this time I wanted to see again the site of a little piece of history, where people I had come to know as adoptive “brothers and sisters” had lived during the war.

The first time I learnt about the Czech school in Wales was when my parents were invited to a reunion of the pupils there in the 1990s. Many of the 120 or so pupils boarding there during the war had arrived in Britain on the Czech and Slovak Kindertransport my father, Nicholas Winton, had organised in 1939 to bring children endangered by the Nazis to Britain. So for those attending the reunion, my parents' presence was a welcome addition to that of their old school friends.

he school occupied the Abernant Lake Hotel, an expansive house in beautiful grounds including a large lake, just outside the small Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells, which had started life as a spa in 1910. Nowadays the hotel has become an outdoor adventure centre

 

It was rented in 1943 by the Czech government in exile for the purpose after the previous site at Hinton Hall in Whitchurch, Shropshire, was outgrown and in need of much repair. The secondary pupils transferred to Llanwrtyd Wells, where they remained for the following two years. The school's aim was to give the children a bilingual education and to maintain their Czech culture.

 

 

Listening to accounts of their school days at Llanwrtyd from some of the “children”, it was obviously a happy place, where having the companionship of others who had gone through similar trials, gave enormous comfort. Alongside those who had come to Britain alone or with siblings on the Kindertransport were those who had escaped with their parents by many and varied means. But all had left behind their homeland and relatives and, until 1938, a happy secure life.

A great bond developed between them which stood the test of time, so that in the 1980s when they had their first school reunion, around seventy ex-pupils came from all over the world to meet there again.

 

 

Several further reunions were held there as well as in the Czech Republic: in Prague and Cesky Krumlov a beautiful town in South Bohemia. I noticed the Llanwrtyd sign showing a twinning between the two towns . One of the school alumni, Ruth Halova, lives in Cesky Krumlov and no doubt suggested the idea.

With the “children” now in their 80s and 90s, reunions become less and less common. But there are reminders of that history at the hotel and in the centre of the tiny town. A tree planted at the school during the first reunion in 1985 remains with its plaque to tell the tale of a remarkable chapter in the history of Llanwrtyd – it is a lime, the national tree of the then Czechoslovakia.

A bench in the centre of the town has its own epithet, with further mention on the information board standing alongside. An additional reminder comes when the Mayor of the town dons his regalia as the Czech alumni clubbed together to buy a mayoral chain of office for official occasions. This they gave the then Mayor in 1985 as a thank you to the town for its warm adoption of the group at a time when refugees young and not so young were not universally welcomed.

I only hope that same open-hearted welcome is being shown to today's refugees from brutality who have found sanctuary in Britain.

 


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6th June 2017: Thoughts on Europe and refugees.

My father died nearly two years ago on 1st July, aged 106. He had a huge life force which seemed propelled by his love of people and his curiosity about the world and its problems and solutions. He had many concerns about the direction of many big issues, such as population growth, water shortages , the effects of religion and building strong communities but he was always talking to people about how such problems might be solved.

In the past two years since he died, I find it hard to imagine how he would have reacted to the huge events that have happened over that time, which will shape our future for generations. Firstly he was a proud European. Having lived through two world wars (he was born 5years before the start of WW1), he was deeply committed to the idea that a strong interconnected Europe was a huge force for peace. He felt as much at home in France, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Italy etc etc as he did in England and had many friends across Europe. The idea that Britain might choose to leave the brotherhood of Europe would have struck him as a tragedy, I am sure.

The Syrian refugee crisis had started long before he died, but it gathered pace and spread into Europe as he was declining in health and after his death. The resonances of seeing families torn apart, children suffering in insanitary and makeshift camps, compared broadly to what he had witnessed in the camps set up around Prague in 1939. Those sights then had compelled him to try and help, much as today's sights have led to thousands of volunteers helping in the camps in Greece and Italy and doing their utmost to bring children to safety.

I think he would be proud of all those doing everything they can to help but also dismayed at the grudging response from the UK government to their responsibility for sheltering those in greatest need, especially unaccompanied children adrift in Europe. One of those he rescued in 1939, Alf Dubs, now Lord Dubs, was responsible for an amendment to the government's Immigration Act to allow unaccompanied refugee children into Britain made in May 2016. Sadly it has been an uphill struggle to get the government to honour this amendment and my father would have been deeply interested in hearing Alf's experience of trying to do the right thing for such children and might even have been lobbying his local MP about it. She happens to be Theresa May. They met at regular intervals and he was not afraid to tell her what he thought should be done in the political arena when they spoke.

Mrs May spoke kindly and generously about him at his Memorial Service last May 2016. A lasting legacy for him would be if the government responded more generously towards vulnerable unaccompanied refugee children, and took up the many offers from local councils and individuals to house and support those children in need.