The late Sir Nicholas Winton, a British stockbroker from a Christianized German-Jewish family, is best known for organizing the rescue of 669 Czechoslovakian children, most of them Jewish, as the Nazis overran Europe in 1939.
Brought to the United Kingdom under its Kindertransport program, in which Jewish children were accepted as refugees, many of the children became the only surviving member of their families after the Holocaust.
But to Nick Winton, his father represents a larger legacy: Public service, and the drive to better his community.
“My father is celebrated for a project – which was a part-time project, which he did after work – [that] lasted for nine months of his life,” Winton said. “But that wasn’t the only project he was involved in. He was a serial humanitarian.”
Winton will be speaking on Nov. 9 at Beth El Synagogue about his father’s legacy at an event marking the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the 1938 Nazi pogroms. The commemoration is co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas and Beth El.
Post-WWII, the elder Winton worked for the International Refugee Organisation and then the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), organizations created in the aftermath of the war to help rebuild European countries and assist refugees.
After his youngest son was born with Down’s Syndrome and died of meningitis at the age of 5, Sir Winton created a support organization for parents to keep children with learning disabilities at home, instead of sending them to specialty homes.
Perhaps the most important lesson Winton hopes to share from his father’s life with Twin Cities Jews is “for people to recognize that, as a community, we all succeed or fail together.
“You can look at yourselves, as Jews often have, as the victims, but all of us, in one way or another, are victims, in the wrong end of somebody’s target,” he said. “We have to get over that, and instead, look at how we can recognize that we are all part of the same world. We all should be helping and supporting each other, rather than working out how to score points off each other – or worse.”
Winton sees an urgency to retelling his father’s story and inspiring more community-building work, as current events – like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and an increase in “us” vs “them” rhetoric in broader society – remind him of Europe in the late 1930s.
“It’s tragic that we just don’t seem to remember [what those times were like], which is why the stories need to constantly be retold,” he said. “It’s the same in your religion, that you greatly revere some of these stories to remind us, not just us, I’m not a Jew, but to remind us as a community that these things mustn’t happen again.”
Winton referenced the anxiety around security that many American Jews feel after attacks like the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in 2018, and the unrest still felt in Minneapolis after the murder of George Floyd in 2020.
“I know that you’ve had some traumatic experiences in your own city,” he said. Channeling his father’s approach to public service, Winton said that the way to overcome those experiences was to increase engagement with the broader community, rather than retreating out of concern for safety. “The way that you improve safety and security is by building bridges into the communities that are antisemitic or anti-our type.”
Winton hopes to use his father’s legacy to remind people that they don’t need to wait for government action to make positive changes.
Per his father’s life-long attitude: “If they feel something should be done, then, you know, jolly well get on and do it, don’t complain about the world not being the way you like it, and expecting someone else to pick up the pieces.”