The British “Schindler”
Sir Winton rescued 669 children from the Nazis. The world learned of his story five decades later.
It was 1938. Europe was on the brink of war. Violence was escalating against Jews.
Nicholas Winton, a young stockbroker following the events from London, wanted to do something.
Shortly before Christmas that year, he visited Prague to help a friend, Martin Blake, who worked for the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia.
There, Winton established an organization with one aim in mind: to rescue as many children of Jewish families as possible destined for Nazi concentration camps.
“All I knew was that the people that I met couldn’t get out,” Winton recalled during a 60 Minutes interview in 2014, “and that were looking for ways to at least get their children out.”
Winton, who had no experience in humanitarian efforts, returned to Britain to secure government assistance. He caught their attention by writing a letter on the official stationery of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia and adding “Children’s Section,” appointing himself chairman. He then set up a small office in London run by volunteer staff managed by his mother.
After each workday, he came to the office at night to wrestle with the British bureaucracy. His efforts culminated in November 1938 with the House of Commons approving a measure that allowed the entry of refugees younger than 17. The conditions: they needed a place to stay and a warranty of 50 British pounds for their eventual return home.
Despite many roadblocks, which included securing official permission to cross into the Netherlands, Sir Winton established the operation later dubbed “Czech Kindertransport” (German for “children transportation”) to safely transport the children to Britain.
Throughout the summer of 1939, he placed their photographs in the magazine Picture Post seeking families to accept them. Ultimately, he found homes in Britain for 669 children.
Many of the parents, who had made the heartbreaking decision to send their children away, eventually perished in Auschwitz, a Nazi concentration camp notorious as an extermination center.
The last group of 250 children were scheduled to leave Prague on Sept. 1, 1939, but were stopped by Hitler’s invasion of Poland on the same day. Only two survived the war.
“Is there anyone in the audience tonight who owes their life to Nicholas Winton?”
Sir Winton’s efforts to rescue 669 children were all but forgotten until 1988, when his wife, Grete, found a scrapbook in their attic containing a detailed list of the names of the children, their parents and the families that took them in.
The world learned of his heroic efforts that February during an episode of the BBC television show That’s Life! Sir Winton was sitting in the audience when, to his surprise, host Esther Rantzen displayed his scrapbook and described
“Is there anyone in the audience tonight who owes their life to Nicholas Winton?” Ms. Rantzen asked. “If so, could you stand up, please?” Sir Winton rose slowly from his chair to find himself surrounded by some 30 men and women. Visibly at a loss for words, he sat back down and wiped tears from his eyes.
Recognized for his “services to humanity.”
In 2003, Winton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for “services to humanity, in saving Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.”
Eleven years later, in 2014, the Czech Republic awarded him the highest honor, the Order of the White Lion (1st Class), for giving these children “the greatest possible gift: the chance to live and to be free.”
For his 100th birthday, Sir Winton flew in a microlight piloted by Judy Leden, the daughter of a boy he saved.
Winton died on July 1, 2015, 76 years to the day when 241 of the children he saved left Prague by train. At the main train station is a monument to his efforts, a bronze statue of him, flanked by a young girl and a suitcase, and cradling a child.