Sir Nicholas Winton in Prague.
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/LI-SUNG)
LONDON – Sir Nicholas Winton, the 105-year-old savior of nearly 700 Jewish children in prewar Prague, flew to the Czech Republic on Tuesday to receive the country’s highest honor, the Order of the White Lion, from its President Milos Zeman.
The Czech Defense Ministry arranged the flight for Winton, who has been dubbed the “British Schindler.”
Though he was born Jewish, Winton was later baptized and became a Christian. In the months before World War II broke out, he managed to send eight trainloads of Jewish children to Britain and helped resettle them with foster families as part of the Kindertransport program. However, a ninth trainload of children never left Prague because of the outbreak of war, and none of its passengers are known to have survived the war.
His involvement began in 1938, when he arrived in Prague as a 29-year-old stockbroker after a friend canceled their planned Swiss skiing holiday and invited him to visit Czechoslovakia. Shortly after the Nazi occupation of the disputed Sudetenland, and having seen refugee camps outside Prague, Winton decided to help children secure British permits.
Being from a German Jewish family, he told BBC Radio, he was well aware of the urgency of the situation.
“I knew better than most, and certainly better than the politicians, what was going on in Germany,” he said. “We had staying with us people who were refugees from Germany at that time. Some who knew they were in danger of their lives.”
On his return to London, he started looking for families to host the Czech children, and he set about persuading the Home Office to agree to let them in. Meanwhile, his collaborator in Prague, Trevor Chadwick, compiled a list of thousands of children anxious to leave.
“The problem was getting the people who would accept the children, and of course this was at a time when the evacuation of children from the south [of England] was taking place anyway,” he said.
“It’s marvelous that so many people did come forward. The unfortunate thing was that no other country would come along and help. I tried America, but they didn’t take any. It would have made a vast difference if they had.”
Winton didn’t return to Prague during the six months that the trains were operating.
Instead, he continued working on the stock exchange during the day, and running the London end of his Czech operation from 4 p.m. into the late evening.
His efforts resulted in the rescue of 669 children in total.
Asked if he had been afraid to provide help, Winton said no.
“There was no personal fear involved,” he said, adding that he was proud to have “made a difference to a lot of people.”
On his current Prague trip, he was due to meet some of those he had rescued. However, he lamented, “unfortunately a lot of the more elderly people are no longer with us, so I have outlived the people I tried to help.”
His story came to light only in the late 1980s, when his wife found a scrapbook detailing the rescue. For over 50 years, he had told no one of the transports he had helped organize from Prague, across Nazi Germany, to London.
When BBC Radio asked him what he made of today’s world, he responded, “I don’t think we’ve ever learned from the mistakes of the past.... The world today is now in a more dangerous situation than it has ever been, and so long as you’ve got weapons of mass destruction which can finish off any conflict, nothing is safe anymore.”