The manuscript for the walking tour of medieval Paris is in the hands of my editor. This means I can turn my full attention to researching and writing the book, Where Did They Put the Gestapo Headquarters? – A Walking Tour of Nazi Occupied Paris 1940–1944. I actually started writing the book’s introduction in February but have now begun the full-on research to determine the actual stops I’ll take you to. This has become a very different experience compared to the prior 3 books. Perhaps those themes were so far removed from a time perspective that the impact on me wasn’t as dramatic. Somehow the stories and brutality of the French Revolution and Middle Ages never affected me in a way the Nazi efforts to eradicate millions and millions of people have (and it wasn’t just the Jews that were targeted for extermination). Remember, it was only a short 75-years ago that the Germans marched down the Champ Élysées to begin their 4-year occupation of Paris.
It doesn’t matter which stop I’m researching, each has a story with an ending that makes me extremely sad. Frankly, in some cases I’ve had trouble sleeping thinking about a particular story and the people involved. So when I come across a story with a happy ending, I want to embrace it and share it with my friends. This particular story caught my attention because of the BBC headlines announcing the death on July 1, 2015 of a 106-year-old gentleman by the name of Sir Nicholas Winton (1909–2015).
Night of the Broken Glass
Shortly after Kristallnacht took place in Germany in November 1938, Mr. Winton traveled to Prague to assist in Jewish welfare work. He set up an organization to get Jewish children under the age of 17 out of Poland and resettle them with British families in England. He and others could see into the near future and the likely fate of Polish Jews. Britain had set up a program whereby they would allow refugees under the age of 17 to come to England provided they could prove they had a place to stay and £50 was deposited into a bank account assuring they could get back to Poland.
The route Mr. Winton chose to get the children across the English Channel was through the Netherlands and onto a ferry at the Hoek van Holland. Unfortunately, the first train of children was refused entry into the Netherlands and returned to Germany. Mr. Winton leaned on Britain for support and none of the subsequent trains had any issues getting past the Dutch border guards.
Mr. Winton was successful in placing 669 children in British homes or hostels, thus saving their lives—most of the children’s parents would perish during the war. The last train with 250 passengers was scheduled to leave Prague on 1 September 1939. However, that was the day Hitler attacked Poland and World War II began. The train never left the station and all of the children would later die in concentration camps.
Some of the children he saved grew up to become British politicians, mathematicians, doctors, filmmakers, and television personalities. Mr. Winton kept a very detailed record of all the children sent to England and the contact information of where they were placed. The amazing thing was that his efforts were not acknowledged until 1988 when his wife discovered a scrapbook in the attic. It contained the details of all the children. Like most men and women who survived World War II, Mr. Winton considered it his duty to act the way he did and once the war was over, he (they) moved on with their lives without asking for or accepting any gratitude.
Today we see entertainers and celebrities like the Kardashians or the Real Housewives of Hollywood elbow their way into our lives as though it has any real meaning to us. Once you start reading the stories of people like Mr. Winton, it gives you a greater appreciation of what a true celebrity is.
It’s also one of those positive stories that once in a while offset the not-so-nice stories during a very brutal and ugly time in the world that saw the best and the worst in human beings. These positive stories help me sleep better.
Please visit for additional information on Mr. Winton and his deeds.
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Copyright © 2015 Stew Ross