How could I have not known about this story before now?
by Charlie Leck
4 September 2009
Nervous and excited, he waited on the platform at London’s Liverpool Station for the arrival of the train from Prague. He felt like pacing to wear off some of his excitement, but he was confined to a wheelchair and he could only wave his arms and bob his head to release some of the nervous energy he felt. His name is Nicholas Winton and he is now 100 years old. He’s surprisingly spry and alert for a gentleman of that age. Newspaper reporters and photographers hovered nearby; for this was something special – something special indeed! They took hundreds of photos of a smiling, joyous Mr. Winton.
You see, Nicholas Winton is a hero; at least, he is to 669 people whose lives he saved in 1939. This was a day of celebration – recognizing the 70th anniversary of Winton’s rescue of train loads of children who were in danger of losing their lives in Nazi Germany.
This is a story that will choke you up if you are a lousy sentimentalist, like I, or, frankly, if you are a piece of 12 inch solid concrete. So, let me explain.
On the 1st of September, in the late morning, a vintage train left the capital city of Prague carrying approximately two dozen survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. Nicholas Winton and a number of his friends organized the recreation of the event and arranged for those remaining survivors to bring along members of their families as well.
As the passengers disembarked from the train, Winton rose very briefly from his wheelchair and stood with the assistance of a cane and shook hands with the passengers. He was filled with emotion and a few tears broke from his eyes, though his smile remained constant and strong.
“It wonderful to see you all,” he beamed. He laughed heartily and urged them not to wait so long for their next reunion.
Nearly all of the elderly passengers posed for photographs with Winton as a band played triumphant music. Many of the children and grandchildren of those who were themselves children in 1939 came along on the rail voyage and got to meet Winton at the big celebration. They presented the elderly hero with hugs, kisses and flowers.
In 1938, Winton, a London stock broker of German Jewish descent, traveled to Czechoslovakia. He was afraid, after being alerted by a friend of his who worked in the British Embassy in that far off land, that the Nazis would soon invade and begin clearing the nation of Jews. His goal was to organize a way to get as many Jewish children as he could out of the country. He worked out an acceptable program with the British government, organized foster homes and began extracting the children. In the months before the beginning of the war, he organized eight trains to carry the kids through Germany and onto Britain. Most the children remained in Britain, but a few were sent on to Sweden. Very few of them ever saw their parents again.
The story of Nicholas Winton remained basically unknown and untold for 50 years. Winton’s wife only found out about it when she came across some of her husband’s correspondence related to his organizational effort. Winton didn’t like talking about the work because his mind was fixed more on the children he couldn’t get out than on those he did. He had organized and scheduled one train to leave on 3 September 1939, but the war broke out on that day and the 250 who were to escape on that voyage never made it out.
Thanks to Winton’s wife, an electrifying documentary of Winton’s story was made in 2001 and it won an international Emmy award in 2002. Shortly after the release of he film, Winton was knighted by the Queen. At the time of the knighting, Tony Blair, Prime Minister, called Winton “Britain’s Schindler” in a reference to the moving story of the German businessman, Oskar Schindler.
British filmmaker, Karel Reisz, was among the children Winton saved. He was the director of the film, The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Prominent Canadian TV journalist, Joe Schlesinger was also one of those children who made the journey in 1939.
People of Czech background, who owe their lives to the work of Nicholas Winton, traveled from all parts of the world, including the United States, to make the journey from Prague to London. A steam locomotive from the 1930s pulled the restored passenger cars. The first leg of the journey took them to the North Sea. After a ferry crossing, a restored British steam engine pulled the cars on into London.
Who says the good always die young?
[To read a story about Winton and his heroism in the Jewish News click here]
A remarkable documentary has been made about Winton’s heroic work. It is called THE POWER OF GOOD. You can find out about it from many sources by googling it on-line.
Thanks to my buddy, Rich McConnell, for alerting me to this story.