UPDATE: I wrote this blog post in two parts five years ago — in March and September 2009. Only then it was called “Sir Nicholas Winton, 100-Year-Old Hero.” Half a decade has now passed, the marvellous and modest Sir Nicky is still alive (although frailer and more fragile than he was five years ago) and he is still, as always, deserving of every bit of praise and honour that can be heaped at his feet. The world needs shining knights like Sir Nicholas Winton, now more than ever.
The reason for this particular update at this particular time is that, in little more than a week, Sir Nicholas Winton will once again be in Prague. Only this time he will not be wrestling Jewish children from the clutches of Nazis who wanted to kill them. This time he will be receiving (on Oct. 28, 2014) the Order of the White Lion, the highest award that can be bestowed in the Czech Republic, from President Milos Zeman.
Only a few weeks ago, it was feared Sir Nicky was too ill to make the arduous trip. But he has rallied his strength and is determined to go to Prague for the ceremony. Safe journey, good man.
Here’s a frame grab from an interview with Sir Nicholas Winton in 2013. And here’s a link to that interview on YouTube. And here’s the original (and subsequently updated) Nosey Parker blog post …
Sometime today (Friday, Sept. 4, 2009), a steam train that left Prague on Tuesday will arrive in London’s Liverpool Street station.
Among the passengers on board are 24 now-elderly men and women who were some of the 669 mostly Jewish Czech and Slovakian children whisked to safety in Britain under the noses of the Nazis 70 years ago.
And waiting for them on the platform in London will be Sir Nicholas Winton — now 100 but still going strong — the modest, courageous man who organized and paid for nine trains in the spring and summer of 1939 to carry those children out of the inferno of Hitler’s empire. Eight trains got through. The ninth was scheduled to leave Prague the day war broke out. The train was seized by the Nazis in Prague and the approximately 250 children aboard were never seen alive again.
Today’s train arrival in London celebrates the 70th anniversary of the successful escapes and mourns the loss of those 250 children and the millions of others who died in the Holocaust that followed.
Here is a blog post I wrote back in March when the Czech consul-general in Toronto, Richard Krpac, orchestrated a special showing of a marvellous documentary on Winton’s feat.
It’s always worth renewing our acquaintance with the goodness that grows in this world amid the evil and pain.
UPDATE: As of late February 2013, Sir Nicholas Winton is still alive, alert and active — and looking forward to his 104th birthday in May.
Sir Nicholas Winton
I saw the face of pure goodness last week.
It’s the face of Nicholas Winton — Sir Nicholas Winton, actually, since Queen Elizabeth knighted him six years ago, but he prefers to be called Nicky.
And what you see is what you get with Nicky Winton. It’s a face of strength and compassion, generosity and wisdom. And also a face of enormous modesty, sensitivity and humour.
But you don’t see quite everything in the face. Otherwise his family, friends and admirers would have noticed some hint of the secret Nicholas Winton kept for half a century.
Winton says it was not a secret — just something that happened and then was overtaken by other events in his life. He served in the RAF in World War II, went back to a successful business career, married, raised children, gave generously of both money and time to his community and lived to a ripe old age.
In fact, he is still living, hale and hearty although saddened by the death of his beloved wife Greta a few years ago. He even renewed his driver’s licence last year.
Sir Nicholas Winton will turn 100 on May 19, and every person of good will in the world should raise a grateful glass to the man that day.
Why? Because he proved one good human being can make a difference in this terrible world. And he did it in complete anonymity, without ever asking for recognition or thanks.
What was Nicholas Winton’s deep, dark secret? On the eve of World War II, he almost single-handedly saved 669 Czech children from certain death.
And it all happened because Winton, a successful young London stockbroker at the time, was going to take a skiing vacation in December 1938.
But before I tell you the story of Nicholas Winton, I want to tell you how I found out about this man.
Thank you, Richard Krpac.
Krpac is the suave and knowledgeable consul general of the Czech Republic in Toronto.
Krpac invited me — and 300 other close friends (before Facebook it would have been obvious that was a joke) — last Thursday to an evening entitled “How We Escaped Hitler.” The subtitle was “An unforgettable evening with two icons of Canadian journalism, who recount their childhood escape from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.”
Hana Gartner, Joe Schlesinger, Richard Krpac and Peter C. Newman
And what an evening. The two journalists — truly icons — were Joe Schlesinger, the CBC’s former globetrotting foreign correspondent, and author, columnist and pundit Peter C. Newman, with the Fifth Estate’s Hana Gartner as moderator (after initial microphone problems were worked out).
Both men are now navigating around the age of 80 and both escaped Czechoslovakia as children. Schlesinger was one of the 669 children (with his younger brother) who were spirited away from the Nazis by Nicholas Winton on eight trains between March and August 1939. Newman escaped with his family, but on a more circuitous and dangerous route through Italy and France as Europe was engulfed in war.
But the centrepiece of the evening was Nicholas Winton: The Power of Good, a 2002 documentary by Prague-based Slovak filmmaker Matej Minac. Joe Schlesinger narrated (and wrote the narration for) the Emmy Award-winning film.
Filmmaker Matej Minac with the grand old man.
It’s an amazing story.
In December 1938, 29-year-old London stockbroker Nicholas Winton was preparing to take a skiing vacation with a friend in Switzerland. But that friend — who worked in the British Embassy in Prague — insisted Winton come to Czechoslovakia instead to see what was happening there.
Britain’s Chamberlain, France’s Daladier, Germany’s Hilter and Italy’s Mussolini.
What Winton found was a disaster about to happen. That cowardly twit Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, and France’s PM Edouard Daladier (who knew exactly what Hitler was up to but couldn’t persuade Chamberlain) had already given Adolph Hitler the Sudetenland portion of Czechoslovakia (without any Czechoslovak consultation) in September with the “peace in our time” Munich Pact.
That servile act did two things. It took away Czechoslovakia’s fortified mountain border zone with Germany and it sent hundreds of thousands of refugees — who knew what the Nazis had already done to their neighbours in Austria — fleeing eastward to Prague.
As Richard Krpac said Thursday night, “Munich (Pact) broke the spirit and backbone of the Czech nation for decades to come.”
And what Nicky Winton found in Prague in December 1938 were refugee camps filled with families, many Jewish, who had fled the Nazis and had nowhere else to run. Because no one would take them in.
I’m ashamed of Canada’s small-minded, bigoted reaction at that time. We closed our doors. What was the phrase that one slimeball parliamentarian used in debates over the issue of Jewish refugee admissions to Canada? Oh yes. “One is too many.”
(Peter Newman and his family, by the way, got into Canada through the courageous subterfuge of a Canadian Pacific Railway agent and a Catholic priest. Newman recalled his father, a sophisticated urban Jewish factory owner, coming home and saying, “We’re going to Canada as barley farmers — and Catholics.” Newman’s family was one of only seven Jewish Czech families that were admitted to Canada in the guise of Catholics.)
Winton could not leave Prague. He became fixated on getting the refugees to safety, especially the children. Using a table in his hotel’s lounge area as his office, Winton began writing every possible government to find safe haven for the children of the Prague refugee camps. And parents began seeking him out to have their children listed for transportation to safety.
The only governments willing to allow entry were Sweden and Britain — Britain reluctantly, and only if every child had a sponsor signed up to take him or her in and only if a 50-pound surety (a considerable sum at that time) was paid for each child.
Winton shifted his one-man rescue mission back to London and began lining up sponsors for his children.
A trainload of Czech children arrive in London in 1939.
Throughout his hectic eight-month mission, Winton said the Nazis were not as much of a problem as was the British bureaucracy. The Nazis simply wanted to be paid to give the children through-passage (sometimes doubling the payment demand at the last hour) but the British were blind foot-draggers.
Few in the British government thought the refugees were in immediate danger. War? What war? We gave Hitler Sudetenland. Everything’s fine.
As 1939 dragged on and the British government dragged its heels, Winton and his growing organization took to printing forged admission papers for children who were approved, but whose papers were not forthcoming.
“We didn’t bring anyone in illegally,” Winton says in the documentary. “We just speeded up the process.”
Nicholas Winton with one of the 669 children he saved in 1939.
But no matter how fast Winton worked, time was running out. The Nazis occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Still no intervention by Britain or France.
March 14 – Aug. 2, 1939: Eight trains to freedom. A total of 669 children saved.
The trains ran from Prague through Germany to Holland. There the children went by ship to England and by train again to London, where they were met by their new families.
It was terrifying for the children, separated from their parents and pushed into an unknown, alien, hostile world. And heart-wrenching for the parents who knew they were sending their children to safety while giving them up, perhaps forever.
An exhausted Czech child falls asleep after her arrival in England.
Well, terrifying for most children.
“I was a 10-year-old kid,” said Joe Schlesinger Thursday night. “For me it was, ‘Hey, this is interesting.’ ”
But time finally ran out.
Winton’s last, biggest train — with 251 children aboard — was set to leave Wilson Station (named for former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson) in Prague on Sept. 1, 1939 — the day Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland.
All borders were closed. The children’s train remained at the station for hours. And then, under Gestapo orders, the train moved out. The 251 children aboard were never seen again. They became a small part of the 1.5 million Jewish children who were murdered by the Nazis.
The documentary does not dwell on it, but I know from reading other interviews with Winton that he is still tormented that he could not rescue those last 251 children. If he had been able to do this or that, pull this string or find a way around that bureaucratic hurdle, he would have been able to get them out a day or two sooner — and they would have lived. As he approaches 100, Winton still prays for the 251 lost children every day.
But with the coming of the larger conflict, Winton put aside his humanitarian mission and went to war.
After the war he married and raised a family and for 50 years never talked about what he had done in 1938 and ’39.
Then, in 1988, his wife came across a scrapbook in the attic. The book contained a complete record compiled by Winton of the rescue operation and had the records of all of the children transported to safety and their settlement homes in Britain.
After Greta Winton stopped being angry at her husband for not sharing this life-altering experience with her, she went to work tracking down “Winton’s children” and letting the world know what her brave, modest husband had done while much of the rest of the world sat on its hands.
Now I have to tell you, I’ve been tearing up off and on for a good 20 minutes at this point in the documentary. But the best/worst is yet to come. And I’m going to share it with you, so I want you to cry too when you see this film clip. It’s not very long — you had better prep yourself and be in the right head space before you hit play.
In 1988, Winton was coerced by family and friends into going on a BBC TV show called “That’s Life” to discuss the 1939 rescue mission. Also invited as audience members were about 80 of “Winton’s children.”
You have to realize that these children — now greying adults — knew very little about the mechanics of their escape from the Nazis. This television show and the revelations of Winton’s scrapbook were, for most of them, the first time they really knew that they owed their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren to the efforts on one man, now sitting in their midst.
UPDATE: The original link I had to this show is now broken, but here’s a link to a shorter — but still moving — clip from that 1988 BBC telecast.
If you’re not a little teary after watching that, I don’t want to know you.
In the audience at Thursday night’s showing of Nicholas Winton: The Power of Good were half a dozen of “Winton’s children.”
Joe Schlesinger summed it up for all of them when he said: “I found myself a father figure and he regards me as a son.”
Like Joe, most of the rescued children in the audience had lost all of their family members who remained behind in the Holocaust.
But those 669 children that Nicky Winton saved have survived and thrived and are doing good works throughout the world. It’s estimated that the families of “Winton’s children” now total more than 5,000 men, women and children.
Nicky Winton visits the children in a school named in his honour in the Czech Republic./Czech Army photo
One person can make a difference, a huge difference.
If each of us can find just a small part of Nicky Winton’s courage and compassion — and do the right thing when called upon — this terrible old world will be a much better place.
Don’t forget to raise a toast to Sir Nicholas Winton on May 19.