In December 1938 — on the eve of World War II — a British stockbroker named Nicholas Winton was readying himself to leave for a skiing vacation when he was summoned unexpectedly by his friend.
I’m in Prague. I have a most interesting assignment and I need your help. Don’t bother bringing your skis.
Upon arrival in Prague, Czechoslovakia, Nicholas Winton found that he had traded his skiing vacation for working at a refugee camp for people who had been vacated from Western Czechoslovakia by Nazis after it was annexed by Germany.
Winton became very concerned about the people in the camp, particularly the children. Everyone was still saying “what war, we’re not going to war,” but he was convinced that German occupation would soon take over all of Czechoslovakia. Tales of the horrible Kristallnacht, a “night of broken glass” when Germans waged a violent attack against German and Austrian Jews, were fresh on his mind. He simply wasn’t having it. Not there, not those children.
Thus began the Czech Kindertransport.
He spent the next nine months raising funds, organizing transport, and finding foster families for 669 children. In the end, alarmed at the slow processes, he began creating fake papers for the children. He said “We didn’t bring anyone in illegally. We just speeded up the process.”
The children began to board eight trains. Their journey took them through Germany to Holland, and then by ship to England, and by train again to London, where they were united with their new families. The last train was the biggest train and held 251 children on Sept. 1, 1939, the day Germany and the Soviet Union occupied Czechoslovakia and all borders were closed. After waiting for two hours, the Gestapo ordered the train moved out. The children on board were never seen again. Without question, they were murdered by the Nazis. The thoughts of those 251 children have tormented Nicholas Winton for his entire life.
And then he told no one. Ever.
His role in Kindertransport was exposed when his wife found his scrapbook, a list of the children’s names, and journals in a suitcase in the attic 50 years later. In 1988, Winton was coerced by his friends and family to go on a BBC television show, “That’s Life,” to tell his story. Unbeknownst to him, sitting in the audience, surrounding him, were 80 of “his” children, now aging adults themselves. Watch the video below to see what happened:
Some of the children rescued by Winton grew up to be notable individuals. Some of the names are quite familiar to Americans, but most are not. An Emmy Award-winning documentary about the Czech Kindertransport and Winton’s role in the rescue was produced in 2002 by a Prague-based filmmaker. “Nicholas Winton: The Power of Good” is narrated by one of “Winton’s Children.” His name is Joe Schlesinger.
Nicholas Winton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 538recognizing his deed. He was nominated for a Nobel Prize for Peace in a petition signed by 120,000 Czech Republic school children and received a Golden Goody Award for Social Good. Nicky’s Family, as his children call themselves, gave him a ring inscribed with a verse from the Talmud, the book of Jewish law. It reads “Save one life, save the world.”
Below is a news piece from CBC News on Sir Nicholas Winston: