WASHINGTON – Alice Masters shouldn’t be alive.
The Bethesda, Md., resident is now 90, but she was fortunate to reach the age of 20. Masters was born in rural Czechoslovakia in 1925, and was raised in a well-to-do household with two sisters. In 1939 her native country was annexed by its neighbor Germany, and the Nazis brought their soldiers and ideals across the border.
Masters’ family was Jewish. Her aunt was killed in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Her parents were likely sent to the Sobibór camp and did not survive Nazi occupation.
But Alice and her sisters were saved by the efforts of Sir Nicholas Winton, a British stockbroker who was horrified by what he saw during a visit to Prague in 1939. The sisters were three of 669 children who were relocated to the United Kingdom through Winton’s Kindertransport trains.
Masters and Winton’s daughter Barbara talked about Winton’s influence on their lives during a program Thursday at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Barbara Winton recently finished a biography of her father and spoke of the decades she spent collecting information.
“My family didn’t even know what my father had done until 1988,” she said. Her father never mentioned his deed until his wife found a scrapbook of documents in the attic.
“It took me awhile to wrap my head around it,” she said.
Barbara Winton spent years sifting through the documents and talking to her father about the work he had done. In 1938 her father went to Prague for three weeks when a friend told him of the deplorable conditions that the refugees were living under. After a week, he had made up his mind about what he would do.
“He developed a sense of social justice, and was very indignant when he saw injustice,” Barbara said.
At the beginning of 1939, the situation for Jews like Alice Masters who were living in Nazi-occupied regions was rapidly deteriorating. They had been stripped of all rights by the Nazis, and by the time Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues were destroyed during Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass,” the Nazis’ violent intentions were clear.
It had also become more difficult to emigrate, as many nations began refusing entry to Jewish refugees. One exception was the United Kingdom, which admitted Jewish children.
But there was, as Barbara Winton recalled, a “gap that nobody was really focusing on,” which was children from Czechoslovakia. With war looming, Nicholas Winton set about to save as many Czechoslovakian children as possible.
He wrote letters to his mother to raise support in the U.K. When he returned home, he wrote to friends in Prague asking them to organize efforts in Czechoslovakia. These letters formed the basis of Barbara’s research efforts.
Through conversations with her father, she learned the lengths to which her father went to ensure safe passage. Entry permits were forged when the Home Office, which oversaw the entry of refugees, dragged its feet. Bribes were paid to Nazi officials to allow trains to depart.
Alice Masters’ uncle was living in the U.K. in 1939 and passed word of the Kindertransport to Masters’ parents, who quickly arranged for their daughters to be sent away.
“I was told I was going to visit my uncle in London,” Masters said. “My mother said we would come back.”
When war broke out on Sept. 1, 1939, the Germans halted all Kindertransport trains. Refugees could no longer escape from Nazi territory.
Masters did not return. She remained in the U.K. until 1948 and then immigrated to the United States to work for the International Monetary Fund in Washington. She later married and has seven grandchildren.
After the discovery of his documents in 1988, Winton’s work was recognized around the world, thanks to a special on BBC. In 2003, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. He was awarded the Czech Republic’s highest honor, the Order of the White Lion, in 2014. He died a year later at age 106.
Representing those two countries at the event were Petr Gandalovič, Czech ambassador to the United States, and consul general from the British Embassy David Hunt. Each spoke briefly before Masters and Winton took the stage.
Wednesday is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Reach reporter Luke Torrance at [email protected] or 202-408-1494. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns onFacebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
Download photos: Winton.zip