He gave 669 Czech children the ‘greatest gift’

150729 winton with some of those he saved as children

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.

Sir Nicholas Winton with some of those he saved as children from the Nazis in an operation later known as the Czech Kindertransport (HEATHCLIFF O’MALLEY )

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’.

On his 105th birthday, he received the Czech Republic’s highest honour, the Order of the White Lion, 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.”

Guests at the birthday celebration included Lord Dubs, the Labour peer who was six when his mother put him on one of the Kindertransport trains. “I can still see Prague station – the children, the parents, the soldiers with swastikas. We set off and when the next evening we got to Holland, all the older ones cheered because we were out of reach of the Nazis. I didn’t fully understand.

“It wasn’t until many years later that I understood what had happened and discovered all about Nicholas. When you meet somebody who almost certainly saved your life, it’s very emotional. I didn’t quite know how to handle it.

“I owe my life to him.”

Sir Nicholas has always maintained that anyone in his position would have done the same. He dislikes being termed ‘The British Schindler’, pointing out that those who ran the mission from the Prague end took far greater risks with their own safety.

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.

He devoted his later years to working for charity, including the Abbeyfield organisation which provides care for the elderly. Some years ago a chance conversation uncovered the fact that one of his fellow trustees was the son of a child Sir Nicholas had saved.

His extraordinary life has been chronicled in a biography, written by his daughter, Barbara. If It’s Not Impossible… The Life of Nicholas Winton takes its title from his motto: “If something is not impossible, then there must be a way to do it.”

In the book, Barbara writes: “My father’s wish for his biography, having agreed to me writing it, is that it should not promote hero worship or the urge for a continual revisiting of history, but if anything, that it might inspire people to recognise that they too can act ethically in the world and make a positive difference to the lives of others in whatever area they feel strongly about, whether it be international crises or nearer to home, in their own community.

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.”

Source and video:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/czechrepublic/10844808/Sir-Nicholas-Winton-at-105-the-man-who-gave-669-Czech-children-the-greatest-gift.html

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