This past July, a somber ceremony stood out amid the hustle and bustle of Hlavni Nadrazi, Prague's main train station. As busy travelers hurried past, anxious to find their trains before departure, a group of about 75 people gathered around a statue adorned with flowers: a man holding a small child in his arms.
The statue was unnamed; thousands have doubtless passed by puzzled, unsure as to its meaning. However, this is altogether appropriate to the nature of the work. Still and silent among the screeches of brakes, the figure of Sir Nicholas Winton stands as a reminder of the heroic work of a humble British clerk. Called the "British Schindler," Winton rescued 669 Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, arranging clandestine train rides and new English families for those who would almost certainly have perished otherwise. Then, he remained silent about his work for decades. It wasn't until his wife found a list of the children's parents and families while sorting through the attic in the late 1980s that the story got out.
Sir Nicholas Winton was thirty years old when he first came to Prague on the invitation of a friend. The year was 1938, and Hitler's Germany was a rising menace in Central Europe. Germany bordered Czechoslovakia, and tensions were high. In October, Hitler annexed the Sudentenland, a part of Czechoslovakia with a large German population. Then, a month later, the world watched, shocked, as Jewish homes, businesses, synagogues, and lives were destroyed during Kristallnacht. Thousands of Jewish refugees headed for Prague in hopes of escaping the tide. Winton arrived in December, two months after the Annexation of the Sudetenland, and less than a year before the official beginning of the war.
Winton served as an ambulance driver in France before the war. Telegraph
A bright young man, Sir Nicholas could see that Germany would not stop at the Sudetenland. After the horrors of the Kristallnacht, no Jew in Prague was safe. Winton started working in the refugee camps around the city. He quickly discovered that, "there is no organization in Prague to deal with refugee children, nobody will let the children go on their own, but if you want to have a go, have a go...I think there is nothing that can't be done if it is fundamentally reasonable." Reasonable it may have been, but Winton's task was daunting.
Thousands of children needed saving, and the clock was ticking. Against Winton stood not only time, but bureaucracy.
"The conditions which were laid down for bringing in a child were chiefly that you had a family that was willing and able to look after the child, and 50 pounds, which was quite a large sum of money in those days, that was to be deposited at the Home Office. The situation was heartbreaking."
Winton set up an office in Wenceslaus Square, open to any parents who wanted to save their children. And consider the monumentality of this from the parent's side, as well. Giving a child to Winton meant accepting that they would never meet again.
After setting up the Prague office, Winton took off for London to prepare everything on the home front, arrange for families, and raise money. Winton also tried contacting the United States about his operation, called "Kindertransport," but he received no response. In England, he worked days at his job and spent evenings and nights organizing the operation, publishing leaflets with pictures of children throughout Britain, and trying to raise money. Along the way, he ran into bureaucrats from the Home Office who told him, "Why rush, old boy? Nothing will happen in Europe." So the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, Children's Section, comprised on Winston, his mother, and several others, andforged the entrance visas.
Winton poses with a child he rescued, Telegraph
The refugee trains were to head north through the Netherlands, which also proved tricky, as soldiers at the borders regularly searched trains for Jewish children and sent them back to Germany. On March 14, the first group of children made it to Britain. German troops marched into Czechoslovakia on the next day, while Western leaders told Czech soldiers to stand down, seeking to appease Hitler.
Transports continued to leave the country as the situation worsened. Winton remained in England all the while, working to find families and match them to children. Meanwhile, brave men and women including Beatrice Wellington, Doreen Warriner, and Trevor Chadwick continued working in Nazi-occupied Prague.
Finally, on September 3rd, 250 children were packed into a train, ready to depart. That same day, Germany marched on Poland, officially starting World War II. None of the children were ever heard from again. It is thought that all perished, along with over 15,000 other Czech children throughout the war.
Winton rarely spoke of his efforts, and no one knew of his work until 1988. An incredible BBC program introduced Winton to some of the children that he saved, who now called themselves "Nicky's Children."
Since then, Sir Nicholas has been featured in books and movies. He was knighted in 2003, and received the highest honor in the Czech Republic, the Order of the White Lion, last year at the ripe old age of 104. Standing up to deliver his speech, Winton said, "I'm not ill, I'm just old and doddery "” more doddery than old, actually."
In 2014, Czech schoolchildren started a petition to award Winton the Nobel Prize. Many see him as an inspiration due to his bravery, resourcefulnessand, above all, humility. He says, "I just saw what was going on and did what I could to help." However, those he saved beg to differ.
Winton died on the first of July, 2015. He was 105.
Today, as people all over the world face challenges old and new, the example of Sir Nicholas Winton stands as a reminder of the power of humanity.