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Doreen Warriner (1904-1972), a young lecturer from University College London with a focus on the economics of small-scale agriculture, was originally planning to study economic affairs in Jamaica on a Rockefeller Scholarship. However, learning about the crisis in Czechoslovakia she decided otherwise and on October 13, 1938 arrived in Prague, a city she already knew from her previous research trips to Eastern Europe. Now, however, the situation had changed radically. After the Munich Agreement in September 1938, about 200,000 people left the Sudetenland. The Sudetenland anti-Nazi leaders, in particular the Social Democrats and Communists, were most vulnerable, and it was obvious that Hitler would soon enter Prague. With the help of the British Labor Party, Doreen Warriner became the official representative of the British Refugee Committee of Czechoslovakia (BCRC). With the help of Quakers and other volunteers, she managed to obtain British residency visas and Polish transit visas, and dispatch trains with the first 250 most exposed Sudetenland anti-Nazi activists from Prague via Poland to London. She personally escorted some of these transports to Poland. Then, Doreen Warriner and her co-workers had to take care of the activists’ families. There were hundreds of women and children without money. Soon Warriner also negotiated transports for political refugees, facing intimidation by the Polish consul and the frustratingly slow work of the British visa office. In February 1939, co-organizing an illegal network, she dispatched a transport of five hundred people: half headed to England, the other half to Sweden. On April 23, 1939, she had to return to Britain, in 1941 she was awarded the Order of the British Empire, and in 1943 she went to the Middle East and later to Yugoslavia where she continued her rescue work. After the war, she returned to the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London, and published texts on agricultural economics and the history of land reform. She vividly described her work of late 1938 and the early months of 1939 in the article, “Winter in Prague”.
While Doreen Warriner initially planned to do research in Jamaica, stock-broker Nicholas Winton (1909-2015) originally planned to go on a ski vacation. Winton – like the native Czech Přemysl Pitter – focused his attention on children and found support in Doreen Warriner’s office, which backed his plan to become the secretary of the BCRC Children’s Section. However, Winton’s above-mentioned letter to his mother shows that, as far as the rescue of children was concerned, he had to start completely from scratch. Fortunately, Winton was very practical with brilliant organization skills. In less than one month in Prague, he helped rescue two children from the city and later, thirty children, thanks to Winton, Warriner’s office and a mysterious Swedish spy, were flown to Sweden. Another flight to London was co-organized by BCRC, Winton, and the Barbican Mission. Without his boss’s permission Winton extended his leave from his London bureau for another ten days – the vacation officially lasted only two weeks and his boss was afraid of the effect on his stocks! Fortunately, another Englishman, Trevor Chadwick, took over Winton’s position in Prague, and Winton could start organizing Kindertransport from London. He met the children at Liverpool Street Station and handed them over to a network of foster parents he had set up. The fact that Winton never directly accompanied a child to Prague’s main railway station in no way detracts from his major role in the organization of Prague’s Kindertransport. In total, 669 children were saved by Winton, Chadwick and BCRC. Unfortunately, the last and largest transport of 250 children was due to depart on the very day that war began, on September 1, 1939. This transport never left.
Winton was initially a “conscientious objector”, refusing to enlist for moral reasons. Instead, he was a member of the Air Force patrol, and then worked as a driver for the Red Cross. Yet later he changed his mind and joined the army: “In the end, it draws you in and there are more important things than your conscience.” After the war he worked for the International Refugee Organization (IRO) and was assigned one particularly difficult and stressful task: along with the director of the IRO, Abba Schwartz, he had to sort out of all the German loot that had been found when the war was over.
After 1948, Winton’s life returned to normal: he was a businessman and later in life became a respected local politician. Nicholas Winton was a modest man, frustrated by the reduction of his personality and life into media soundbites. He hated the epithet “The English Schindler”, considering it absurd. He met his “children” on the That’s Life TV show in 1988 and later told Vera Gissing that he enjoyed meeting them but thought that the kitsch format of the British TV show was inappropriate. In 1998, he received the Order of the White Lion from Václav Havel and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2002. Like his fellow savior of children, Přemysl Pitter, Winton was both modest and practical. As his daughter fittingly wrote in her biography, “He would not wring his hands, but always looked for a solution. He was able to turn his emotions into action.”, a quality that makes Winton a great inspiration even today.
Of Doreen Warriner’s circle of helpers, Beatrice Wellington (1907-1971) deserves a mention as her role in the winter of 1938/1939 was very important. By the strength of her personality she was able to put pressure on the gestapo and accelerate the issuing of visas. As a Canadian, she worked with Doreen Warriner, but she was independent of the British embassy, and (even more than Warriner) was allergic to bureaucratic slowness and was quick to criticize British officials. Wellington was also very successful in dealing directly with the Prague Gestapo boss, von Bömelburg. Her strategy was to turn up every day in von Bömelburg’s office. According to William Chadwick, von Bömelburg himself was a bit afraid of her. This is reported by another activist of the era, a British Government Liaison Officer for Refugees, R.J. Stopford: “... she was more and more convinced that her mission could be accomplished only by confronting the Gestapo ... Kriminalrat von Bömelburg was not a zealous Nazi, and when possible, he cooperated with us, but he could not show that he was under pressure. After a while, he told Creighton that he had had enough of Miss Wellington’s method and asked him to dismiss her. But Miss Wellington stayed in Prague.
Let us leave the last word about Beatrice Wellington to Doreen Warriner: “When I got back to England, Beatrice Wellington kept me advised by telegram of what was happening. One party left early in May across Germany. On 22 May I went to Liverpool Street to meet the last of the women who had been in my charge. Beatrice Wellington stayed on in Prague, dealing with the remaining women, and did not return to England until the end of July, by which time she had got them all out.”
Now, just a few other names of heroes of 1938 and 1939. Trevor Chadwick, who replaced Nicholas Winton in Prague and was the main organizer of kindetransport from Prague; R. J. Stopford a colleague of Doreen Warriner in negotiations with the British government. David Greenfell and William Gillies of the Labor Party, Quakers Jean Bannister and Tessa Rowntree; Josephine Pike, Alec Dickson, John Ingman, Walter Layton and other courageous men and women.
In conclusion, let’s move forward to early September 2015, when” volunteers from the Hlavák Initiative (“Prague Main Station Intiative”) helped refugees from war-torn countries who were passing through the Czech Republic. The volunteers, “spontaneously, quickly, and with a belief and faith in solidarity’ provided them with food, clothing, beds and information. In the midst of general turmoil and indifference, the Hlavák Initiative volunteers, as well as volunteers of the Czech Team working in the Balkans, have added another link in Doreen Warriner’s circle of hope.
- William R Chadwick: Rescue of Czech Refugees. Prague, Mladá fronta 2017.
- Doreen Warriner: "Winter in Prague". SEER, Vol. 62, No. 2, April 1984.
- Vera Gissing and Muriel Emanuel: Nicholas Winton and the Rescued Generation. Valentine Michell, 2002.
- Barbara Winton: If it’s not impossible ... Sir Nicholas Winton’s life. Prague, Argo 2014.
- Oral History Interview with Nicholas Winton (AUDIO): https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn504884
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