Perhaps the most remarkable man living in Britain today Sir Nicholas Winton on the 19th May celebrated his 105th birthday party at the Czech embassy in London. The guests at the party were the offspring of 669 children – mostly Jewish – rescued by Winton from almost certain death in the months before the second world war broke out in 1939. Most of their families ended up interned and murdered in Nazi concentration camps. Today they call themselves “Nicky’s children”.
Sir Nicholas will be awarded the Order of the White Lion, the country’s most revered state distinction, for giving Czech children “the greatest possible gift: the chance to live and to be free”. The Czech president, Milos Zeman, wrote to Sir Nicholas: “Your life is an example of humanity, selflessness, personal courage and modesty.” In 1939, Sir Nicholas masterminded the transportation of children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to Britain, saving them from the concentration camps.
Nicholas Winton rarely spoke of his achievements in the decades that followed, believing his actions to be unremarkable. He came to public attention only in 1988, when he was reunited with some of those who call themselves “Nicky’s Children” on an emotional episode of the BBC programme That’s Life! Sir Nicholas was a 29-year-old stockbroker about to set off on a skiing holiday in December 1938 when a friend urged him to change his plans and visit Prague. A politically-minded young man, he agreed to go in order to witness what was happening in the country. The Nazis had invaded the Sudetenland two months earlier and the situation in Prague was becoming increasingly dangerous for Jews.
While agencies were organising the mass evacuation of children from Austria and Germany, there was no such provision in Czechoslovakia. Sir Nicholas began meeting parents who were desperate for their children to be taken to a place of safety, and began compiling a list of names. The first train left Prague on March 14, the day before German troops marched into Czechoslovakia. Two fellow volunteers, Trevor Chadwick and Doreen Warriner, organised the Prague end of the operation.
Sir Nicholas returned to Britain and masterminded the rescue mission, finding adoptive homes for the children, pleading for funds and navigating the complex bureaucracy – ensuring each child had the £50 guarantee (£2,500 in today’s money) to pay for their eventual return, and securing exit and entry permits. On some occasions, he forged Home Office documents which had been too slow to arrive, and without which the children would not have been allowed to leave Czechoslovakia.
Name tags around their necks, the bewildered children arrived at Liverpool Street Station where Sir Nicholas and his mother would greet them. Some had relatives in the UK, but most went to live with strangers. Eight trains reached London. The ninth did not. It had been set to leave on September 1, carrying 250 children – the largest number yet. But that day Germany invaded Poland, and all borders were closed.
Those who arrived at the station were turned away by German soldiers. It is thought that nearly all the children due to leave that day ended up in the concentration camps. Some were siblings of children who had made it out on earlier trains. An estimated 6,000 people across the world are descendants of ‘Nicky’s Children’.
His achievements would have gone unheralded were it not for a scrapbook which he had kept. It contained pictures, documents, letters and photos from the mission, and a list of the children saved.
A family friend passed the scrapbook to a newspaper in 1988 and the story was taken up by That’s Life!, the consumer programme hosted by Esther Rantzen. Sir Nicholas, then 78, was invited on to the show and, in a moving sequence, found himself seated in an audience made up of those who owed their lives to him. His involvement with the victims of the Nazis did not end with the Kindertransport. In 1947, he began work for the International Refugee Organisation, part of the United Nations. His role was to supervise the disposal of items looted by the Nazis and recovered by the Allies.
Asked what message he would like the biography to carry, Sir Nicholas told his daughter: “I came to believe through my life that what is important is that we live by the common ethics of all religions – kindness, decency, love, respect and honour for others – and not worry about the aspects within religion that divide us.”