Sir Nicholas Winton is a name you might not know. He was not in our history books. We never learned his story in school, either. However, the bravery, humanity, and compassion he showed were inspiring. That is why his story is remarkable.
Let us visit the 1930’s to learn what happened. Hitler was ruling during this time. The Nazi’s horrifying acts made Jews suffer a lot. During the 1930s, they forcefully moved Jews. Still, only some countries were willing to welcome Jewish refugees.
In the meantime, many countries, including Britain, tightened their immigration policies. In 1938, 32 countries met in Évian, France, to address the growing refugee crisis. However, they all refused to welcome refugees to their countries.
Making matters worse, a turning point in Nazi anti-Semitism happened on 9th November 1938.
This time, many violent protests broke out against the Jews. This event is known as Kristallnacht, a.k.a the Night of Broken Glass. The protesters burnt Synagogues, attacked businesses, smashed windows.
The situation went out of control and was a danger to the Jews. As a result, Britain decided to open its borders to bring in Jewish children.
At this time, Nicholas Winton was a young stockbroker based in London. He was also a socialist interested in international affairs.
Winton was born Nicholas Wertheimer in 1909. His parents were descendants of Jews. However, they wanted to blend into British life. So they anglicized their name and baptized Winton into the Anglican church.
Winton’s family contacts gave him an insight into the situation in Europe. Also, he realized what the Nazis were capable of doing.
In December 1938, Winton received a letter from his good friend, Martin Blake. It was this letter that made him postpone his holiday plans and go on a rescue mission.
Blake had already traveled to Prague on behalf of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia. His letter contained an intriguing invitation. It read, ‘I have a most interesting assignment. I need your help.’
Once Winton arrived in Prague, he saw for himself what the Jews were going through. Refugee camps were full of families. People were struggling to survive the harsh winter conditions. It was heart-wrenching to witness. All in all, his biggest concern was for the children. He could not stand what the poor kids were going through. So he decided to take action to save them.
As a British citizen with contacts, Winton knew he could bring children to England. Winton and his colleagues, Blake and Warriner, planned out a temporary headquarters in a hotel in Prague. Then they began taking the names of families who wished to send their kids to safety.
As you can imagine, transporting hundreds of children across Europe was not an easy task. Winton returned to Britain with all the paperwork. The British government was letting only vulnerable refugees into the country. It was also only under strict conditions.
Winton arranged a foster family for each refugee who left Czechoslovakia. Several children had relatives waiting in Britain. However, in most cases, Winton had to persuade strangers to let in the children. He put up ads in newspapers calling for volunteers. Luckily, the British government had already started to move British children from city centers at this time. That way, the British public was familiar with the idea of accepting refugees to their country.
In 1939, trains carried over 600 young refugees through the heart of Nazi Germany. There they took a ferry to the English coast and then caught a train to London.
He risked his life to save 669 primarily Jewish passengers to Britain successfully.
And then, after the war was over, Winton didn’t brag about his heroic actions. He didn’t tell anyone at all for half a century, not even his wife, Greta. It was until fifty years later when his wife accidentally found a scrapbook in the attic. The book contained the names, pictures, and documents of the Holocaust victims that he rescued. It also had heartfelt letters from some of their parents. It was the first time she learned her husband’s brave story. Greta then took the story to Holocaust researcher Elisabeth Maxwell. They then sent letters to the then-children. They got over 200 responses out of the 669 children on the list.
In 1988 Winton appeared on a BBC television program called That’s Life! Winton got an invitation as an audience member. What Winton did not know was that the people around him were the victims he rescued. The program also showed his scrapbook and explained the incredible story behind it.
The children were, of course, now grown adults.
Winton was surprised when they revealed that a child he saved was sitting right beside him. What surprised him more was that there were two dozens of others he rescued in the audience! When the host asked if there were others Winton had saved in the audience, they stood and applauded!
To honor his bravery, Queen Elizabeth II knighted Sir Nicholas in 2003.
Winton celebrated his 105th birthday with about 100 guests in attendance. Many of those guests were offspring of the children who Winton rescued in 1939. How wonderful is that?
He also received the Order of the White Lion, the highest order in the Czech Republic. The Czech President Milos Zeman explained that Winton’s example of humanity, selflessness, bravery, and modesty were reasons for the prestigious honor.
A year after that, on 1st July 2015, Sir Nicholas died at the age of 106.
His story is incredible and inspirational. A lot of people might say that they would not have the courage to do what he did. However, for Winston, it is not a difficult task to do good. According to him, if something is not impossible, there has to be a way of doing it. Now, that is a great life lesson from a real-life hero.
Do not forget to watch the video below to see Winton’s appearance on This is life! You will love the moment when he realized the audience members were the children he saved. Get some tissues ready to watch this sweet reunion.