Nicholas Wertheim was born in London of German Jewish parents who left Germany with the rise of Nazism. The family changed their last name to Winton and converted to Christianity. Nicholas’ parents were financially very well off and he grew up in a privileged environment. Nicholas followed in his father’s profession and became a stock broker.
Prior to the start of World War II, Nicholas visited a friend in Czechoslovakia. He was appalled by the refugee camps filled with Jewish families fleeing the threat of a German invasion. He was aware of efforts in Austria and Germany to evacuate children. Nicholas decided to take the lead in establishing a similar program for children from Czechoslovakia.
England had passed a law accepting children who were under the age of 18 if adoptive parents were found and they had 50 pounds to cover their eventual return to their home country. Nicholas undertook the organization of the evacuation. This included finding adoption parents, obtaining permissions to enter England, and securing the necessary funds. Nicholas paid for the funds for many of the children out of his own resources.
Over a period of nearly six months, Nicholas arranged for the evacuation of 669 children. A ninth train of 250 children was not allowed to leave. Only 2 of those children survived.
For 50 years, Nicholas never talked about his efforts to save the children. Even his wife never knew what he had done. Then one day, his wife came across a scrapbook containing documents of Nicholas’ rescue efforts. With Nicholas’ consent, the scrapbook was given to a Holocaust historian.
Nicholas’ was honored for his efforts, although the lives of the children he saved were the honor he sought. The greatest honor for Nicholas was reunions with those he had rescued. Perhaps the most touching reunion is shown in this short video: https://youtu.be/PKkgO06bAZk
When asked why he did what he did, Nicholas answered: “One saw the problem there, that a lot of these children were in danger and you had to get them to what was called a safe haven, and there was no organization to do that.”
Nicholas took the lead to help out when no one else did. Most of us will encounter situations where there is an obvious need, but no one is acting on the need. Nicholas decided to take the lead at considerable risk and financial commitment. As he said: “Some people revel in taking risks, and some go through life taking no risks at all.” For Nicholas, the reward was 669 lives saved. When we step up and take the lead, that’s what we look back on at the end of our life as our greatest accomplishment.
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“Every great leader can take you back to a defining moment when they decided to take the lead.” -John Paul Warren (author and minister)