Shul honours Czech Kindertransport organizer

TORONTO — Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue will honour Sir Nicholas Winton with its Yakir Hakahal (Precious to the Community) award at a gala dinner May 6.

Sir Nicholas Winton at his 100th birthday party.

Winton, who rescued 669 refugee children during the Holocaust, is almost 101 years old – his birthday is May 19 – and lives in Maidenhead, England.

Nick Winton

His son Nick, accompanied by his partner, journalist Monica Porter, whose mother was also a Holocaust rescuer, will travel here from England to accept the award on his behalf.

Journalist Joe Schlesinger – one of the children rescued by Winton – will also speak at the event. CJN editor Mordechai Ben-Dat will serve as MC.

Yakir Hakahal was established to recognize people who have made “a tremendous contribution” to the Jewish world and the world at large, according to a press release. Past recipients include Judge Sigmund Reiser, Toronto councillor Mike Feldman and Rabbi Joseph Kelman.

Funds raised at the dinner will support initiatives designed to teach children lessons of the Holocaust, and specifically a children’s garden being planned at the 1,300-family synagogue. The garden will be dedicated in memory of children who perished in the Holocaust.

In a phone interview from his home in London, England, Nick Winton, now 57, told The CJN it wasn’t until 1988 that he learned of his father’s wartime bravery.

“It was only when [my parents] were trying to clear out the attic, and Mother wanted to know what to do with the trunks.” he said. The trunks contained documentation about the Czech Kindertransport – eight trains in all – organized by Winton in 1939 to take refugee children to foster families in Britain.

A ninth train with 250 additional children was scheduled to leave Prague on Sept. 1, 1939, but the borders closed when Hitler invaded Poland that day. The children did not survive the war.

Winton was reunited with some of the children he saved on a BBC television show called That’s Life. He was also the subject of a 2002 Emmy award-winning documentary, narrated by Schlesinger, called Nicholas Winton – The Power of Good. It aired on CBC in 2003 under the title Nicky’s Children.

Nicholas Winton was born to German Jewish parents who immigrated to England at the turn of the last century. According to a number of websites, Winton was baptized Anglican, but “he’s not a religious person,” his son said. “If anything, he would call himself a humanist.

“I guess like a lot of people his age, he went through the war and didn’t really talk about it. He moved on.”

However, Nick noted, his father has always been “very public spirited,” and has been involved in setting up a number of charities.

Nicholas Winton has been honoured by the Czech government, and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2002. Earlier this year he received an award from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown commemorating more than 20 British heroes of the Holocaust.

He wanted to travel to Toronto, but was unable to do so, his son said.

Although he was hospitalized recently for “a small illness,” his son said Winton is “still quite active today. He still has a remarkably good quality of life. He still plays bridge – not too badly.”

He added that his father is still interested in world events, still attends concerts and, for his 100th birthday, went for a ride in a microlight airplane.

It was Nicholas Winton’s interest in world affairs that prompted him to do what he did, his son believes. “He’s always gotten involved in current affairs and politics. That made him aware of the danger, and he felt that nobody was taking the threat seriously.”