He is Sir Nicholas Winton now, having been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2003. He has also been given tributes in this documentary by the Dalai Lama and Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Sir Nicholas Winton - Wikimedia
In 1938, when Nicholas Winton was 29 years old, he was a successful young English stockbroker who was also a champion fencer; he loved to ski, to sail, and to travel. He had never had a passion for altruism. One day, he received a call from Prague, from his friend Martin Blake, who had to bow out of a ski trip that he and Nicholas had planned. He was in the middle of a project of helping people in Czechoslovakia to send their children to England because of the threat of war which was hanging over the Czech Republic. Nicholas Winton went to Prague to help.
People in difficulty started knocking on Winton’s hotel door begging for help. They were on Hitler’s black list because they were Jews, and there was no organization formed to help their children. Over 2000 children needed help. His first successful venture was with a beautiful woman named Kerstin. People said she was a Nazi spy, but Winton took his chances. It paid off. He was able to fly 25 children to Sweden. Kerstin disappeared. When Winton’s boss called him to say he had to return to work, Winton quit his job to stay in Prague.
Queen Elizabeth II - Wikimedia
Britain Says Yes
Winton wrote to everyone, even President Franklin Roosevelt. The United Stated could permit immigration only under the existing laws. Britain responded affirmatively. The rest of the world closed its eyes, with the exception of Sweden.
Some of those refugees remembered the day that the Germans occupied Prague. Hitler passed by in a car, standing. Everyone was silent. Prior to that, they remembered a happy childhood, picking strawberries and wildflowers, and planting vegetables. It was a good life until the Nazis took over. Four synagogues in Prague were burned to the ground.
Nicholas Winton went around to the camps where people endangered by the Nazis were living. The conditions were terrible and they were stuck. This was in 1939. Word of Winton’s campaign spread. The Germans heard about it also. He had to convince them to let the children out, and he had to raise the money to make it all possible. He had to find a family in England who would look after a child until the danger was over. The child had to have 50 pounds to be sent. Winton made up official stationery and made himself Honorary Secretary. He sent out a newspaper with pictures of children. It was quick and effective and it worked.
Dalai Lama - Wikimedia Commons
Separation from Parents
Parents had to explain to their children that they were going to a country called England and that their parents would not be with them. Time was essential. Passports and documents had to be forged. No child was brought in illegally; the forgery just speeded up the process. Tension arose when the Germans demanded more money. It took great sacrifice and courage on the part of the parents to send their children away. Often the child carried only a small suitcase and a blanket. Many were crying.
A great relief spread through the group when they arrived in Holland. It was like coming out of a tunnel; it was as if the sun started shining. In the railway station, a group of women in their native costumes smiled and passed out cocoa and sandwiches. The children had never had white bread before.
Match Up with a Family
The children thought it was fun to go on a boat to cross the English channel. They sang the Czech national anthem as they crossed over. The anthem contains the words “Where is my home? Where is my home?” In Liverpool, 250 refugee children got off. They had to get to the right family which had to sign for the child to offer proof of delivery. Some children got left behind and the police looked after them until they could sort things out. Five of those children were driven by a taxi cab driver to a fish and chips place, and then took the five home to his wife and child until their proper family could be found. Some families that took in a child were poor themselves. They were farmers whose homes had a thatched roof, with the toilet outside, and no electricity. They were good Christians who cared very much for the children. One Rabbi complained that the children should not have been sent to Christian homes.
World War II broke out on September 1, 1939. Winston Churchill said “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost. We shall never surrender.” Houses collapsed from the bombs. People were afraid to go outside. It was known as the Battle of Britain, with bombing every single night. Some of the children, when they came of age, joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) and hunted German submarines. They wanted to be a part of liberating their own country. The war ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, and many of those children went back to Prague, looking for their missing loved ones. They learned that many families had been sent to Auschwitz to the gas chambers. Others were sent to Terezin Concentration Camp. They realized why there parents had sent them to England at such great sacrifice.
Elie Wiesel - Wikimedia
Scrapbooks in the Attic
Nicholas Winton’s story came out accidentally. He never mentioned it to his wife Greta for fifty years. She found his old scrapbooks in the attic in 1988 which he had kept secret for so long. They contained the names of 669 children. Nicholas and his wife tried to track down the names of the children in his scrapbooks and got answers from 250 of them. None of those children knew who had masterminded their rescue. His achievements became public in 1988 when he was invited to be a member of the audience of a BBC program. Two dozen of those former children were there that day to pay tribute to the man who had saved their lives. Several told stories of their own efforts to help people because of the example they had learned from the life of Nicholas Winton. Some had gone back to Prague to take the train that took them to freedom over fifty years ago. He said “I didn’t know that what I did would have such an impact.” Nicholas Winton died on July 1, 2015 at the age of 106.
I wish more people knew the story of Nicholas Winton. He is a beautiful role model for young people yearning to devote their lives to a worthy cause.
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