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Apr 2011 Journal

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Doreen Warriner, Trevor Chadwick and the ‘Winton children’

Ever since his part in the rescue of 669 mostly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia on Kindertransport-style trains in 1939 was revealed on BBC TV’s That’s Life (February 1988), Sir Nicholas Winton has, belatedly, received something of the recognition that he deserves. A knighthood, a statue in Prague’s Wilson Station, a feature film by the Slovak director Matej Minac (1999), the Masaryk Medal of the Czech Republic and, most recently, the Channel 5 programme Britain’s Secret Schindler are but a few of the distinctions that honour his name. However, Sir Nicholas was, as he freely acknowledges, one of a group of people, mostly British, who were involved in the rescue; the others, long dead, have been almost totally forgotten.

The story of the immediate threat to the Jews of Czechoslovakia begins with the Munich Agreement of 30 September 1938, when Britain and France agreed that Hitler should occupy the Sudetenland, the areas of Czechoslovakia bordering on Germany that were in part German-speaking. Thousands of refugees, Jews and political opponents of the Nazis, fled from the occupied areas into the rump of the Czech state, itself now exposed to pressure from the Germans under the feeble regime of President Hacha. The refugees from the Sudetenland were desperate to emigrate, as were their counterparts in rump Czechoslovakia. As many Czech Jews and anti-Nazis feared, it was only a matter of time before Hitler occupied the rest of the country, and on 15 March 1939 he duly did so.

It was in January 1939, in the interim period between Munich and the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, that Nicholas Winton spent some three weeks in Prague and threw himself into the task of saving children. But others had been there well before him – and stayed well after, under the far more difficult conditions of the German occupation. The reason that they were mainly British was probably that, for the first time, the British government became directly involved financially in the organisation of the emigration of refugees from the Nazis. In the wake of its blatant sell-out of its Czech ally to Hitler at Munich, the Chamberlain government allocated £4 million to assist at least some of those under threat from the Nazis to flee the country.

The widespread feeling of guilt about Munich, combined with humanitarian compassion for the Czechs, also led to the raising of funds by non-government bodies, like the Lord Mayor of London’s fund. Assisted by donations from these sources, the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia (BCRC), later the Czech Refugee Trust Fund, was set up, putting in place the apparatus to bring emigrants to Britain. One advantage of the financial involvement of the government was that H. M. Treasury sent Robert Stopford to Prague in October 1938 as its representative. Stopford was one of the unsung heroes of the story: his generous-minded sympathy for the refugees and, after March 1939, his ability to manage the Germans were of the greatest benefit in getting endangered people out of Czechoslovakia to Britain, in face of the Home Office’s marked lack of enthusiasm.

The key figure in the rescue of refugees from Czechoslovakia was Doreen Warriner, a young academic from University College London, who arrived in Prague in October 1938, soon after Munich, to provide assistance for those who had fled there from the German-occupied Sudetenland and, if possible, to bring them to safety. Warriner was mainly concerned with political refugees, especially anti-Nazis from the Sudetenland, mostly Social Democrats under the leadership of Wenzel Jaksch; she did not focus on Jews, though many of the people she rescued were Jewish, and she did not focus on children, though in bringing out the families of anti-Nazis she also saved children’s lives.

It was Warriner who underpinned the rescue organisation in Prague. She established and headed up the office on Voršilská Street, where the other rescuers, including Winton, worked, and where the trains that took refugees across the border to Poland were organised; and she recommended Winton to the BCRC, thus making it possible for him to create his children’s section of the BCRC when he returned to London. Warriner stayed in Prague until April 1939, when it became too dangerous for her. She had been smuggling anti-Nazis illegally across the border into Poland, and the Gestapo were about to arrest her. The number of people Warriner saved ran into the thousands. One of her most memorable exploits was, with two helpers, to guide two groups of endangered women and children from Prague’s railway stations to safe accommodation in cheap hotels and hostels, and this on the day after the German army entered Prague, when the streets were filled with German military units.

The ‘Winton children’ left Czechoslovakia legally, largely thanks to Sir Nicholas’s tireless efforts in fulfilling all the bureaucratic requirements for their entry into Britain, in finding homes for them and in locating people who would put up a guarantee of £50 for them, as demanded by the government. But Winton left Prague on 21 January 1939 and could play no part in the organisation of the refugee transports at the Czech end. Fortunately, a replacement was at hand, in the person of Trevor Chadwick, a teacher at a school in Swanage, Dorset, who had come to Prague to bring two refugee boys to places at the school. In the event, they also took a third child – Chadwick’s mother provided the guarantee – and she became the poet Gerda Mayer, whose lines grace, among other publications, the book that accompanied the AJR’s exhibition Continental Britons (2002).

Chadwick delivered the three children, then returned to Prague to work for the rescue of further refugees. According to the recently published and very informative book by his son, William Chadwick, The Rescue of the Prague Refugees 1938/39 (Leicester: Matador, 2010), he had thousands of refugees on his lists, but to his abiding regret could ‘only’ save hundreds. Chadwick made the organisational arrangements in Prague for the children whose entry to Britain had been secured by Winton in London. Working with Warriner, he was involved in the selection of the children to emigrate and in the organisation of the trains that took them to Britain; it was he who stood on the platform at Wilson Station.

The division between Warriner’s work to rescue adults and Chadwick’s to rescue children was far from absolute. On 30 March 1938, she noted: ‘Trevor Chadwick and I spent a happy hour packing food for seventy, and carried it to the Wilson station.’ He was at the time preparing for his second Kindertransport. Chadwick also arranged flights for children, though these have not received any of the publicity accorded to the train transports. Doreen Warriner had assembled a number of children in the Prague YWCA, and on 10 March 1938, as she puts it, ‘a special plane took my children from the YWCA to England, through Winton’s organization, by now in charge of Trevor Chadwick’. Chadwick returned to Britain in June 1938, probably, as his son assumes, after seeing off a train transport with 123 children on board on 2 June.

Warriner and Chadwick both died in the 1970s. This article is intended to help to bring the role they played in the rescue of the children from Czechoslovakia to public attention. It is certainly not intended to detract in any way from the achievements of Nicholas Winton, whose name is now widely famous. Probably the best source of information about him is the study Nicholas Winton and the Rescued Generation by Muriel Emanuel and Vera Gissing (1999). Winton’s work was a humanitarian effort of the highest order. He recognised that no one was focusing specifically on the rescue of endangered, especially Jewish children from Czechoslovakia, and he set out to fill the gap. During his relatively brief stay in Prague, he compiled an invaluable database consisting of case papers on many hundreds of children, which he brought back with him to London.

There he proceeded to set up the children’s section of the BCRC, effectively on his own authority and initiative, and, after finishing his day’s work at the Stock Exchange, to complete the various requirements necessary for the children to be admitted to Britain. He lobbied the Home Office for permits, he found guarantors, he sent photos of children to people willing to act as their guardians and dossiers to those willing to accommodate them, he raised money and he generated publicity, all under the intense pressure caused by the urgency of the situation in Prague, the shortness of time and the slowness of the British authorities.

What Winton did not do was personally to spirit Jews away from under the noses of the Germans and their collaborators. Someone who did was the American journalist Varian Fry, who was sent to Marseille in August 1940 by the American Emergency Rescue Committee and set up a network that smuggled an estimated 2,000 endangered refugees, mostly artists and intellectuals, across the Pyrenees to Spain.

Anthony Grenville

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