Sir Nicholas Winton has often been called “Britain’s Schindler” for saving at least 669 children, most of who were Jews, from Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Holocaust. But he doesn’t like the comparison.
Winton doesn’t feel that he deserves the association, since unlike Oskar Schindler, the German who saved over 1,200 Jews by employing them in his factory, Winton didn’t personally risk his own life.
But it’s easy to see why the link has been made. In the 1930’s, Winton worked as a stockbroker in England. Though of Jewish heritage—his paternal grandparents and his parents were of German Jewish descent—he had been baptized at birth in 1909.
In 1935, following the passage of the Nuremberg Laws, Winton realized that if he and his family had remained in Germany, they would have been considered Jewish and treated ruthlessly. Accordingly, Winton’s family began to arrange for their remaining Jewish family members to leave the country.
In the coming years, Winton watched in horror as Hitler rose to further prominence and the Nazi propaganda machine grew. During his business trips to Germany, he witnessed the Nazis’ increasing violence first hand: regular beatings and arrests of Jews.
Before Christmas 1938, Winton was 29 years old and planning a ski trip to Switzerland, when his friend asked him to scrap his plans in order to help with a refugee effort in Prague, in then Czechoslovakia.
"Cancel your holiday," his friend Martin Blake told him. "I need you in Prague. Don't bring your skis."
There Winton observed the work of the British Refugee Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia (BRCRC), which had been operating under newly-made British immigration laws that enabled Jewish children to immigrate from Germany and Austria.
Winton focused on refugee children from the Sudetenland and also on local Czech Jewish children. Returning to London with hundreds of photos and details of children whose parents hoped to save them from the imminent Nazi invasion, he created the “Children’s Section” of the existing BRCRC. Lacking formal office space, he used his own address for the newly invented agency.
Winton went back to his work as a stockbroker during the day, but worked fervently on his fundraising campaign in the evenings and on weekends, calling up members of the press and anyone he could think of who might help fund his rescue scheme. Winton needed £50 (about $3,500 today) for each child as an eventual repatriation guarantee from England to Czechoslovakia. He pleaded with governments around the world to open their borders, but was rejected by every country—including the United States—except Sweden and Great Britain. He also printed cards with the photos and details of the children to show to possible foster parents.
While Winton was the primary organizer of the rescue scheme, he did not work alone. He arranged a small group of volunteers, including his mother, and a Prague-based counterpart, Trevor Chadwick, who forwarded details from parents seeking a viable escape for their children. In all, around 5,000 children were on the list.
Winton’s first 20 children arrived in England on March 14, 1939, one day before Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. The volunteers kept working, sometimes forging papers to slip the children by the Germans. In the next eight months, Winton organized eight transports: one airplane and seven trains. A ninth transport, which was to be the largest, had been scheduled to leave Prague on September 1, 1939, but Germany invaded Poland, preventing the train’s departure. None of the 250 children aboard are believed to have survived the Holocaust.
With the official start of the war and the increasing difficulty of rescuing more children, Winton stopped his rescue project and joined the Royal Air Force to help defend England. By the war’s end, Winton had lost track of most of his children and became busy rebuilding his own life.
“When peace came, what was a 35-year-old man to do, traverse the country looking for boys and girls?” he has said. “Wherever they were, I had good reason to assume they were safe and cared for.”
That continuation of life “as normal” meant that Winton’s deeds went largely unnoticed for 50 years. Not even his wife, Greta, knew of his rescue effort until 1988, when she came upon an old scrapbook in their attic filled with urgent telegrams, pleading letters from desperate parents, and photographs of children. After this discovery, Greta encouraged her husband to come forward with his story. In 1988, she arranged an emotional broadcast with the BBC that reunited Winton with his very much-aged “children” for the first time.
Those 669 rescued children, many now grandparents, still refer to themselves as “Winton’s Children.” They became doctors, teachers, musicians, artists, writers, government ministers, scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and even a Member of the British Parliament. One, Dagmar Símová, is a cousin to the former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The “children” and their descendants now number around 5,000 people.
Meanwhile, governments have honored Winton with the recognition that he never sought. He received a letter of gratitude from Israel’s former president, Ezer Weizman, and was made an honorary citizen of Prague. In 1999, he was granted the Honorary Freedom of the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead for a lifetime dedicated to humanitarian activities, making him a member of a group which includes the likes of Queen Elizabeth, the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles. The Queen conferred a knighthood upon him in 2002, and former President George W. Bush thanked him in early 2006 for his “courage and compassion.” The 2002 documentary, “The Power of Good,” helped spread Winton’s story around the world, as did the Czech dramatization “All My Loved Ones,” and a book and film, “Power of Humanity,” by one of his rescued children, Vera Gissing.
“He rescued the greater part of the Jewish children of my generation in Czechoslovakia,” Gissing has said of her gratitude. “Very few of us met our parents again: they perished in concentration camps. Had we not been spirited away, we would have been murdered alongside them.”
Now, nearly seven decades later, Winton is still active, attending conferences throughout Europe and visiting schools to share his heroic story. This May, the Czech ambassador helped Winton celebrate his birthday at The Basic School of Sir Nicholas Winton, a school dedicated to him in Kunzak, Czech Republic. He turned 103.
Rachael Levy is a freelance writer who recently graduated from The American University of Paris with a degree in international and comparative politics. You can follow her on Twitter at @rachael_levy.