What would you do if, when packing for a holiday, your friend called and told you there had been a change of plans? A serious change of plans, and they needed your help.
This is exactly what happened to the late Nicholas Winton. In 1938, the then 29 year old English stockbroker diverted from his skiing break in Switzerland, putting aside his skis to instead accompany his friend to war-torn Czechoslovakia.
Little did he know his life would never be the same again.
The friends travelled as Associates of the British Committee for Refugees, visiting areas around Prague that were largely home to Jewish Refugees.
During his visit he was heartbroken by the conditions he witnessed in the camps. He found that ‘the children of refugees and other groups of people who were enemies of Hitler weren’t being looked after’.
Nowadays, you may not think of fifty pounds as being a lot of money. But in 1938, this was the price of freedom for thousands seeking to escape persecution. A huge sum of money which was unattainable for the vast majority.
In his own words, Nicholas describes what he saw:
“Many of the refugees hadn’t the price of a meal. Some of the mothers tried desperately to get money to buy food for themselves and their children. The parents desperately wanted at least to get their children to safety when they couldn’t manage to get visas for the whole family.”
Nicholas knew he had to do something to help.
What he did next remained a secret for fifty years.
There is a memorial at London Liverpool Street Station, UK. It often goes unnoticed – hidden behind the blur of daily commuters.
Look closely and you will see five children huddled together. Three girls, two boys, each clutching suitcases. The smaller of the girls cuddles a toy bear close to her chest. Their faces reflect hope and a determination to move forward.
This statue tells the story of the Kindertransport: a rescue mission in 1938/9 Austria and Germany. The Kinder Transport helped 10,000 unaccompanied children flee Nazi persecution in their home towns.
The Secret Uncovered
In 1988, Grete Winton was in the attic when she came across a scrapbook. Inside she found the list of children’s names, photographs and ID cards from 1939.
This was the first time the true extent of Nicholas’ war efforts became known.
The scrapbook revealed how Nicholas had saved 669 children from almost certain death. Inspired by the Kindertransport, he had organized a similar rescue operation for the children of Czechoslovakia in March 1939.
His Rescue Mission
From his hotel room in Prague, Winton took applications from desperate parents. He was overwhelmed by the sheer response, and found he had to expand his operation.
This extract from his scrapbook indicates some of the tough decisions he faced during the application process:
“And what about the question ‘will I soon be able to follow my child?’ It may be that circumstances will prevent her from ever seeing her child again… And then there is the very big problem of mothers with kids who are far too small to be parted from them. What is to be done here?”
Once back in London Nicholas juggled his stockbroker job alongside his rescue operation. He worked hard to raise enough money for transport, and scouted England for foster homes for the children.
On March 14, 1939, the first plane organized by Nicholas Winton left Prague for England. Following that he worked tirelessly to save as many children as possible. Seven further escapes by rail and ship took place until August. The rescue mission was forced to end when Germany invaded Poland and Britain declared war in early September 1939.
A Reluctant Hero
Following the discovery of his scrapbook, Nicholas Winton’s inspiring story of courage and determination spread around the world.
In 1988 Nicholas appeared on Esther Rantzen’s BBC television program, That’s Life.
The clip shows the moving moment Nicholas realises he is sitting next to one of his children. The audience are asked ‘is there anyone else who owes Nicholas their life?’ To which, the entire audience stands.
Following the show, many of the self-named ‘Winton’s Children’ who weren’t able to make it on set that day wrote to Winton, expressing their gratitude. The BBC show was aired nationwide, and consequently Nicholas received letters from all over the world. Their names can be matched to those in his scrapbook.
Today, Nicholas’ efforts are recognised globally. Winton received an MBE from Queen Elizabeth II in 1993, and then in 2002 a knighthood for his services to humanity.
Nicholas Winton peacefully passed away in July 2015, aged 106.
His remarkable tale lives on in the hearts of those he saved.
His life has been made into three films, all by Slovak filmmaker Majej Mináč– All my Love (1999), the award winning Nicholas Winton: The Power of Good (2002) and Nicky’s Family (2011).