Story by Shannon Vance, RFL Social Advocate & National Youth Council Member
In 1938, while the Nazi’s were fiercely planning their conquest of the European continent, Nicholas Winton was about to leave England for a ski trip. Convinced by his friend, Martin Blake, and the threat of European war, he went to Czechoslovakia instead. Blake worked as an associate for the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia. It had been recently established to assist refugees that were created as a result of the German annexation of the Sudetenland. It was there that Winton would visit several refugee camps, filled to the brim with Jews and other political adversaries of the Nazi regime. He found the conditions to be atrocious.
Winton had heard of the creation of Kindertransport, which was a British effort to bring over 10,000 children from Germany and Austria to England where they could be safe from the horrors of war. Spurred by his certainty that the German tirade would continue throughout Europe, Winton put together a similar operation for children at risk in Czechoslovakia.
Working under the name of the organization Martin Blake worked for, Winton started taking applications from parents in need from his hotel room in Prague. Very quickly there were thousands of families lined up outside his newly opened office. The long lines became something of great interest to the Gestapo, forcing Winton to deal with confrontations and bribery. While he had only 900 children officially registered, he had details on more than 5,000.
With part of his adventure completed, Winton returned to London to figure out what to do with these children upon arrival. Time was moving quickly, but Winton managed to raise money to fund the children's transport. He found families willing to care for these new refugee children and spent every moment of his free time working towards bringing as many children back to England as possible. Ads were run in several newspapers and bulletins, appealing to the hearts of the British people. These children needed their help.
Hundreds of families volunteered to take children, while money came in from others. Anything that wasn’t covered by a donation Winton covered from his own pocket. He also forged visas for the children since dealing with conventional methods was taking far too long.
Only three months after his initial trip to Prague, the first transport of 20 children bound for London left on March 14, 1939. The following day, the German army began to occupy Czech territory and flying the children out of the country was no longer an option. Seven more groups left Prague via train; the last of them leaving on August 2, 1939. Winton and foster families would meet the refugees at the train station, finding they carried only a small bag and a nametag.
The final transport was 250 children. The largest group yet boarded their train on September 1, 1939. However, they never made it out of Prague. On that same day, Hitler invaded Poland and closed all German-controlled borders. Winton believes that many of those children perished in concentration camps. The final number of children saved is believed to be at 669. Those who survived and made it to Britain were orphaned by the war’s end. Many of them went on to become British citizens or emigrated to Israel or North America.
What many don’t realize about Winton’s operation is that he kept it a secret. For 50 years, he said nothing about the rescue; not even his wife knew. It wasn’t until she found a scrapbook, filled with names, pictures, letters from families and the like, that she asked him. He simply did not believe that they would be of interest to anyone after the war and suggested his wife throw them away. He continued to shake his head in disbelief when being compared to men like Oskar Schindler, who saved thousands of Jews by hiring them to work in his factory.
On September 1, 2009, exactly 70 years after the invasion of Poland ended his rescue operations, a special train left Prague to re-create this life-saving journey. On board were several of those who Winton saved, who refer to themselves as “Winton’s Children”, as well as members of their family. They pulled into the same train station they arrived at 70 years prior and were greeted by the same bright smile of Sir Nicholas Winton.
Sir Nicholas Winton passed away on July 1, 2015. He received knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II in 2002 for his service to humanity. Listen to him recount his own story by visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, found here.