On the eve of the Second World War, a 29-year-old British stockbroker by the name of Nicholas Winton, went to extraordinary lengths to save 669 mostly Czech Jewish children by getting them out of Nazi-occupied Bohemia and Moravia. Learning of the plight of the children and their families, Winton organised the so-called kindertransport which left from Prague’s main station, travelling through Nazi Germany to Holland and finally to Great Britain, where the children were taken in by adoptive families. They were saved from the Holocaust but many never saw their real parents again. This Monday, Sir Nicholas turns 105; Radio Prague has more on the man and his remarkable life.
For decades Nicholas Winton, who was knighted in 2003, barely spoke of his deed to anyone: it was only in 1988 that a BBC programme revealed his actions back in 1939 when he saved hundreds of mostly Jewish children sending them by train out of the country. Thanks to the programme, Nicholas Winton met for the first time those he had saved; he later called it one of the most emotional moments of his life. Today, Sir Nicholas is rightly celebrated around the world. Ahead of his 105th birthday, Sir Nicholas spoke to Czech TV, coming across as modest as ever – making clear he had never expected so much attention.
“Well I find it a bit embarrassing in a way: to me I am just an ordinary person.”
In a recent interview for CBS News’ 60 Minutes, Nicholas Winton described how he had heard of the plight of Czech Jews and their children ahead of the war and had no choice but to help, adding his lifelong motto was “If it’s not impossible, there must be a way of doing it”. Back in 1939, the British stockbroker did what was necessary to get as many children as he could out of the Protectorate, even modifying, 60 Minutes pointed out, the letterhead of an existing charity to include a children’s section, listing himself as its chairman. From there, the British authorities “had to accept him” and gave the green light. Reminded of the fact by 60 Minutes, Sir Nicholas grinned. The main thing, he made clear, was that it had been a success.
The first part of the motto “If it’s not impossible…” is the name of a book written by his daughter launched on the occasion of her father’s 105th birthday. The book aims to set the record straight on a number of matters, including why her father remained silent for so many years. Barbara Winton:
“A lot of people have said, why did he do it? Why did he keep it secret? And I was in a position where I could say… The best thing is that my father all his life has kept records and letters that he wrote to his mum and she returned later.”
The book is being published only in English for now, but is likely to see a Czech translation. In Prague, a number of events are marking his 105th birthday, from an exhibition at Prague’s Kampa Park to a birthday bash on Tuesday at the city’s Lucerna ballroom. ON Monday, the Czech embassy in London marked the occasion and the Office of President Miloš Zeman issued a statement saying the president will award Sir Nicholas the highest state distinction in the Czech Republic, the Order of the White Lion, in October.