Winton had a moral compass for the ages

Winton had a moral compass for the ages

Menachem Rosensaft
Menachem Rosensaft

NEW YORK — Thirty-four years before Henry Kissinger told the president of the United States that the emigration of Jews from a country where they were subjected to persecution “is not an objective of American foreign policy,” and that the mass murder of Jews in gas chambers would not be an “American concern,” a petty U.S. government official conveyed precisely the same sentiments to a young London stockbroker who was busy saving the lives of Jewish children.

On May 16, 1939, Nicholas Winton, the unlikely protagonist of “Nicky’s Family,” a magnificent documentary film produced, directed and co-written by Matej Minac, wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt urging him to let refugee children from Czechoslovakia into the United States. Their situation was desperate.

In response, Rudolf E. Schoenfeld, first secretary of the U.S. Embassy in London, informed Winton on June 7, 1939, “that the United States Government is unable, in the absence of specific legislation, to permit immigration in excess of that provided by existing immigration laws.  However, in view of the possibility that private organizations might be in a position to be of some assistance, a copy of your letter [to FDR] was forwarded to the President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees in New York City.”

Schoenfeld’s letter flashes onto the screen for literally seconds early on in the film, which movingly but soberly depicts how Winton brought hundreds of refugee children, most of them Jewish, from Czechoslovakia to England while politicians and governments had turned their collective backs on the Jews of Eastern and Central Europe.

Born Nicholas Wertheim on May 19, 1909, in West Hampstead, England, into a family of German Jewish origins, Winton’s parents had him baptized into the Anglican Church.  As Monica Porter wrote in the London Jewish Chronicle in 2010, the Wertheim family had “plucked” the name Winton “at random out of a London phone book” sometime in 1938. She explained that, “in the run-up to the Second World War, with ‘enemy aliens’ being rounded up all over Britain,” Wertheim “was an undesirable moniker to have.  So they anglicized it, while keeping the initial ‘W’ as a nod to the family’s origins.”

In December of 1938, Winton was about to go on a skiing vacation in Switzerland when he changed his plans and instead traveled to Prague at the urgent behest of a friend who was active there in the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia.  By the time he arrived in the Czechoslovak capital shortly before Christmas, Central European Jews lived in utter terror.  The previous month, during what has become known as Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass), Nazi storm troopers and government-organized mobs had burned synagogues and looted Jewish homes and businesses throughout

Germany, Austria and German-occupied Czechoslovakia, and around 30,000 Jews had been arrested and sent to concentrations camps.

Confronted with thousands of Jews who sought to flee from Nazi persecution, officials at U.S., Canadian, Australian, South African and other consulates routinely denied visas to the overwhelming majority of them, with one notable exception.  At the behest of Jewish leaders such as Chaim Weizmann, the president of the World Zionist Organization, and Chief Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz, the British government had agreed to let refugee children up to the age of 17 enter England as long as a £50 bond was posted for each child.

News of Winton’s presence, a rare glimmer of light in the ever-darkening aura of an impending cataclysm, spread rapidly through Prague.  At the Hotel Šroubek in Václavák (Wenceslas) Square, he met with desperate parents who pleaded with him to bring their children to safety.  When he returned to England in January 1939, he had compiled the names of more than 2,000 children.

In the words of Canadian television journalist Joe Schlesinger, one of the rescued children and the film’s narrator, “Winton started his work in London from scratch.  There was no organization, no existing pipeline, and he was convinced that time was running out, that war was about to come.  He conducted his campaign to get the Germans to let the children out, the British Home Office to let them in, to find British families to take them into their homes and to raise the money to make it all possible.”

Thanks to Winton’s single-minded efforts, 669 refugee children arrived in England from Czechoslovakia on eight separate train transports during the eight months that preceded the outbreak of World War II. They were taken in by British families whose generous hearts evidenced their humanity.

“The only people who objected to what I was doing,” Winton recalls, “was when one day a couple of rabbis arrived at home and said that they understood that some of the good Jewish children I was bringing over to this country were going to Christian homes and that must stop, and I said, well, it won’t stop. …  If you prefer a dead Jew in Prague to a live one who is being brought up in a Christian home, I said, that’s your problem, not mine.”

A close reading of the recently published “FDR and the Jews,” authors Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman place Schoenfeld’s letter to Winton in its disturbing historical context. Even though U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkin and, it would appear, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt favored admitting Jewish refugee children into the United States outside the immigration quotas, others in the administration, with the acquiescence of the president, effectively sabotaged a legislative initiative to make such a rescue operation possible. And the President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees referred to by Schoenfeld was a toothless tiger whose chairman was in any event opposed to the proposed legislation known as the Children Refugee Bill.

Schoenfeld’s letter eerily foreshadowed Henry Kissinger’s unconscionable observation to President Nixon on March 1, 1973, in the White House Oval Office that, “The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy.  And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern.  Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

In sharp contrast to Kissinger, Sir Nicholas Winton — he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2003 — who still lives in his native England at the age of 104, understood that coming to the aid of persecuted fellow human beings must always be not just an American but a universal concern and priority.

Perhaps the foremost reason among many why “Nicky’s Family” should be seen by as many people of all ages and walks of life in as many countries as possible is that the film shows the world what a true moral compass looks like.

(Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide and war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.)