That Sir Nicholas Winton (Nicky to friends and family) has reached the venerable age of 100 should come as no surprise. While others around him falter, his constitution is stubbornly robust, and no doubt his phlegmatic attitude to life also helps. You will never see him riled about anything. Which is not to say he does not get exasperated. So if you do not want to exasperate him, do not compare him to Oscar Schindler, and do not call him a hero.
Understandably enough, to the hundreds of Czech children (kinder) whose lives he undoubtedly saved from the Nazis by bringing them to London at the eleventh hour and placing them with English foster families, he is a heroic father figure. “But I was never in any danger,” he has constantly argued. “I took on a big task, but did it from the safety of my home in Hampstead.”
He insists he cannot be equated with those who risked their lives, such as Schindler and my own mother, Vali Racz, honoured at Yad Vashem for rescuing Jewish friends in Budapest during the Nazi occupation. It is gracious of him to acknowledge this truth, but nobody is listening.
Since his story was taken up by the world’s media many years ago — and given a major boost by his 2003 knighthood — he feels it has all got “out of control” and that he can no longer correct oft-repeated misconceptions. Recently we were sitting in his house near Maidenhead when he pointed to the latest in a long line of honours and awards that have been heaped upon him. It was a framed certificate from a Jewish organisation in America citing his heroism for saving Jewish children during the war. “It’s got three mistakes in one sentence,” he remarked with a weary sigh. “I wasn’t heroic, the children weren’t all Jewish and it happened before the war.” Not for the first time, he observed: “Makes you wonder what other historical ‘facts’ the world has got wrong.”
I have got to know Nicky’s views and preoccupations very well over the past decade since his son Nick and I have been together. One frequently recurring motif over the course of many Sunday lunches in the country pubs of Berkshire has been his distaste for religion. Although he comes from a German-Jewish background (the original family name was Wertheim), he had a secular upbringing, and his late wife Grete was a Danish Christian. It is a source of satisfaction for him that his kinder grew up to be a largely secular lot who nonetheless have been notable for their charitable activities and dedication to helping others. Rather like him, in fact. (He received the MBE for services to the community in 1983.)
“The Jews are not sure whether they are a race or a religion,” I have heard him opine many times. Some of his kinder, who ended up living in Israel, clearly identify with their Jewish heritage but reject the religious dogma that can accompany it. This pleases him.
Controversially, perhaps (and surprisingly for someone who has recounted his kindertransport story to schools, synagogues, community groups and cultural organisations), he is sceptical about all the attention the Holocaust receives. “We don’t learn from the past anyway,” he argues. “What’s the point of dwelling on it? It would be better to move on from history and focus on the teaching of ethics, because they are sadly missing from public life.”
He is equally dubious about Holocaust Memorial Day, believing that it should encompass other genocides that have taken place around the world since the Nazi period. “Think of Rwanda, the Muslims in Bosnia, Darfur. Those are holocausts, too,” he declares.
Nicky and I have had our lively debates over the years. For one thing, he is a lifelong socialist, while I, whose family fled from Hungary in the wake of Russia’s brutal suppression of the 1956 uprising, am hardly enamoured of socialism and other leftist disasters. But, rather endearingly, he is receptive to the arguments of others and at times concedes that he could be wrong about some particular point — although you will have to win this concession all over again next time the same subject crops up. Maybe it is a centenarian thing.
Which brings us back to his longevity, which he puts down to eating and drinking whatever he feels like and doing pretty much what he wants. “People these days are far too worried about they should or shouldn’t do to stay healthy. We are always being told how to live,” he says. Neither does he believe in rushing off to the doctor at the first sign of trouble. “The body knows how to cure itself. You should let aches and pains go away by themselves.”
On the big day, next Tuesday, he will receive the traditional birthday greeting from the Queen, but as he has already met her on several occasions, and once even hitched a ride back from Slovakia with her on the Royal Flight, this will hardly be a big deal for him.
As a result of the articles, films and TV programmes about him, Nicky has become something of a celebrity and has hobnobbed with luminaries, including Prince Charles and Israel’s late ex-President Ezer Weizman. “My favourite was Bill Clinton,” he told me just the other day. “You could have a proper conversation with him.”
Last weekend, the Mayor of Windsor and Maidenhead threw a birthday bash for him at Windsor’s historic Guildhall, where he has been granted the freedom of the city. And this weekend the Czech embassy is hosting a reception in London, which many of Nicky’s kinder — now grandparents themselves — will attend. There will also be a private gathering at his house, when the big garden which he devotedly tended for decades — until it recently got a bit too much — will be overrun with family and friends, and Nicky will get up to deliver a few off-the-cuff words.
I have heard him give speeches and he always says what is on his mind, rather than what is expected. The audience might be awaiting some standard sentiment on, say, inter-racial tolerance, but instead, he will warn about overpopulation or recall how milk was delivered by horse-drawn cart when he was a boy.
Nicky is resolutely his own man, which is why the kindertransport rescue happened in the first place. That is plenty. He need not be heroic, too.
669 children saved
Sir Nicholas Winton was a 29-year-old stockbroker when he went to Prague in December 1938, three months after Hitler annexed the border region of Sudetenland. He decided to mount his rescue mission after visiting refugee camps and seeing there was no organised relief effort for the children there. He persuaded the Home Office to open the UK’s doors, and between March and August 1939, 669 Czech children — most of them Jewish — arrived on eight Kindertransport trains.