In December 1938, 29-year-old British stockbroker Nicholas Winton visited Prague to assist in Jewish refugee camps. Winton was shocked at the atrocious conditions, especially for children, who were facing almost certain death by the Nazis.
In order to get these children to safety, Winton established a small operation in Prague. He contacted European and American governments, asking them to take in children. Only Sweden and Great Britain agreed.
The British Parliament required that each child entering the country have a foster home, an entry visa and 50 pounds for return transport. Winton pleaded with the British Home Office to expedite the visas because Hitler was preparing for massive invasions and children’s lives were at stake. But the bureaucrats plodded slowly, unconcerned about Nazi incursions abroad. Exasperated, Winton had his organization forge the visas.
Transporting children to safety was an intricate operation involving multiple trains, dangerous contacts with Gestapo agents, an English Channel crossing and a great deal of money for bribes.
Winton advertised in newspapers,ynagogues and churches to find foster homes and raise money. When he did not receive sufficient donations, he made up the difference himself.
As conditions for Czechoslo-vakian Jews worsened, frantic parents began visiting Winton. The devastating reality was that their children were slated for Nazi death camps; entrusting them to Winton was their only hope.
On March 14, 1939, the first transport of children left Prague. Bribes to Nazi officials made possible the dangerous passage through Germany. They crossed the North Sea by boat, then British trains carried them to the Liverpool Street Station in London, where foster parents waited. Winton met the transport in order to match the exhausted children with their guardians.
Seven more transports carried children to safety between March and August 1939.
On Sept. 1, 1939, 250 children boarded what was to be the largest transport from Prague. But that day, Hitler invaded Poland and closed all borders. “Within hours of the announcement, the train disappeared,” Winton later recalled. “None of the 250 children aboard was ever seen again.” All are believed to have died in extermination camps.
Nicholas Winton’s rescue operation had come to an end. He had saved 669 children.
After the war, a few children reunited with family members, but nearly all parents had died in the Holocaust without seeing their children again.
Winton said later that he was haunted by the image of hundreds of children at the Prague station awaiting the failed mission. He believed that 2,000 additional children could have been saved if more countries had helped.
After Nicolas Winton’s rescue operation became public in 1988, he began receiving letters, phone calls and visits from those he saved. They called themselves “Winton’s children.”
Among those saved were Dagmar Símová, cousin of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; Alfred, Lord Dubs, member of the British Parliament; Joe Schlesinger, a Canadian broadcast journalist; and Renata Laxová, a geneticist who discovered the congenital abnormality Neu-Laxová Syndrome.
In later years, Winton wore a ring given to him by some of the children he saved. It was inscribed with a line from the Jewish Talmud: “Save one life, save the world.”
Knighted for his humanitarianism, by the time Sir Nicholas Winton died in 2015 at the age of 106, “Winton’s Children” had had children, and those children had had children. More than 6,000 people are alive today because of his operation.
Winton never understood why he was famous.