In 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 more than 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.
Nicholas Winton, then a 30-year-old clerk at the London stock exchange, visited 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.
He 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.
'The 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.
He 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.
Back 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 the costs.
In 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 September 3, 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.' None of the children set to flee that day survived the following years. Later, more than 15,000 Czech children were also killed.
Nicholas 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. Winton, who gave these children the gift of life, watched from a distance.
Nicholas Winton, one of the unsung heroes of World War II, known as the Schindler of Britain, is still revered as the father who saved scores of his 'children' from Nazi death camps.
In September, 2001, Nicholas Winton was the guest of honour at the film premiere of his story in Prague. Winton was invited by Czech president Vaclav Havel and around 250 of the 664 people he saved were expected at the event. The biography, Nicholas Winton and the Rescued Generation, by Muriel Emmanuel and Vera Gissing (Vallentine Mithchell Press) was published in 2001. A Slovakian film entitled: Nicholas J. Winton - Power of Good is also in the works.
Winton insists he wasn't anything special, adding, 'I just saw what was going on and did what I could to help.'