1939 the English stockbroker Nicholas
Winton rescued 669 Czech children from their doomed fate in the
Nazi death camps, but his achievement went unrecognised for over half a
century. For fifty years most of the children did not know to whom they
owed their lives. The story of Nicholas Winton only emerged when his wife
Greta came across an old leather briefcase in an attic and found lists of
the children and letters from their parents. He hadn't even told her of
his role during the war.
Winton, then a 30-year-old clerk at the London stock exchange, visited
Prague, Czechoslovakia, in late 1938 at the invitation of a friend at the
British Embassy. When he arrived, the British team working in newly
erected refugee camps asked him to lend a hand.
spent only a couple of months in Prague but was alarmed by the influx of
refugees, endangered by the imminent Nazi invasion. He immediately
recognized the advancing danger and courageously decided to make every
effort to get the children outside the reach of Nazi power.
commission was dealing with the elderly and vulnerable and people in the
camps kept telling me that nobody was doing anything for the children,'
Nicholas Winton later recalled.
set up office at a dining room table in his hotel in Wenceslas Square in
Prague. Word got out of the 'Englishman of Wenceslas Square' and
parents flocked to the hotel to try to persuade him to put their children
on the list, desperate to get them out before the Nazis invaded. 'It
seemed hopeless,' he said years later, 'each group felt that they
were the most urgent.' But Winton managed to set up the
organisation for the Czech Kindertransport in Prague in early 1939 before
he went back to London to handle all the necessary matters from Britain.
Children on the train
in London, Winton immediately began organizing transports to get the
children out of the country, cooperating with the British Committee for
Refugees from Czechoslovakia and the Czechoslovak travel agency Cedok.
Working day and night he persuaded the Home Office to let the children in.
For each child, he had to find a foster parent and a 50 pound guarantee,
in those days a small fortune. He also had to raise money to help pay for
the transports when contributions by the children's parents couldn't cover
nine months of campaigning as the war crept closer, Nicholas Winton
managed to arrange for 669 children to get out on eight trains, Prague to
London (a small group of 15 were flown out via Sweden). The ninth train -
the biggest transport - was to leave Prague on 3 September, 1939, the day
Britain entered the war - but the train never left the station. 'Within
hours of the announcement, the train disappeared,' Winton later
recalled. 'None of the 250 children on board was seen again. We had 250
families waiting at Liverpool Street that day in vain. If the train had
been a day earlier, it would have come through. Not a single one of those
children was heard of again, which is an awful feeling.'
of the children set to flee that day survived the following years. Later,
more than 15,000 Czech children were also killed.
Winton never forgot the sight when the exhausted children from
Czechoslovakia piled out of the trains at London's Liverpool Street
station. All wore name tags around their necks. One by one, English foster
parents collected the refugee children and took them home, keeping them
safe from the war and the genocide that was about to consume their
families back home.
who gave these children the gift of life, watched from a distance ..
Winton, one of the unsung heroes of World War Two, known as the Schindler
of Britain, is revered as the father who saved scores of his 'children'
from Nazi death camps.
Vera Gissing, one of the children saved by Winton, has written his biography
and scripted the film, Power of Humanity. She says: 'He rescued the
greater part of the Jewish children of my generation in Czechoslovakia.
Very few of us met our parents again: they perished in concentration camps.
Had we not been spirited away, we would have been murdered alongside them.'
september, 2001, Nicholas Winton was the guest of honour at the film
premiere of his story in Prague. Winton was invited to the launch by Czech
president Vaclav Havel and around 250 of the 664 people he saved were also
present at the event. The biography Nicholas Winton and the Rescued
Generation by Muriel Emmanuel and Vera Gissing (Vallentine Mithchell
Press) was published in November, 2001.
insists he wasn't anything special, adding, 'I just saw what was going
on and did what I could to help.'
survivor Vera Gissing said: 'I owe him my life and those of my children
and grandchildren. I was lucky to get out when I did and having the chance
to thank Nicky was the most precious moment in my life.'
survivors, though many are now grandparents, still call themselves 'Winton's
children.' Among the children saved were Dagmar Simova, cousin
of the Czech-born U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Lady
Milena Grenfell-Baines, whose father, Rudolf Fleischmann saved Thomas
Mann by assisting him to gain Czech citizenship for his self-imposed exile
from Germany after the rise of Hitler. Joe Schlesinger, the CBC
correspondent. Julius Sidon from California, the brother to Chief
Rabbi Karol E. Sidon of the Czech Republic. Lord Dubs, a Member of
Parliament. Hugo Merom, the ex-Israel air force pilot and
consultant who specialises in airport planning.
acclaimed film director Karel Reisz. 45 years later Reisz actually met
Nicholas Winton at the first reunion. 'I had never heard of him. I
thought the Red Cross had organised it,' he said. 'I took my
children and grandchildren - I think it brought it alive to them to learn
where their grandfather came from. It was very emotional ..'
Sir Nicholas Winton
Winton resides in Maidenhead, Great Britain. He was honored with the title
of Member of the British Empire (MBE) in 1983 for his charitable
work with the elderly, mainly the establishment of the Abbeyfield Houses.
Czechoslovakia, he was awarded the Freedom of the City of Prague, and on
October 28, 1998, Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic, awarded
him the Order of T. G. Marsaryk in a grand ceremony in Hradcany Castle.
31 December, 2002, Nicholas Winton was rewarded in the Queen's 2003
New Year's Honours List and received a knighthood.
On October 9, 2007, Sir Nicholas Winton was awarded the Czech Republic's
highest military decoration, The Cross Of The 1st Class, and at the
ceremony the Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg supported the
initiative of students and schoolchildren who have collected more than
32,000 signatures under a petition for Nicholas Winton being awarded the
Nobel Peace Prize for the salvation of the children from Czechoslovakia.