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The lives of Nicholas Winton

in Culture

A young man’s holiday to Czechoslovakia in 1938 saves the lives of hundreds of children

It was confirmed last week that Sir Nicholas Winton will indeed be coming to Prague at the end of October to receive the highest honor the Czech Republic can bestow on an individual: the Order of the White Lion. This distinction is in recognition of Winton’s work in 1938–39 to get as many children as possible, mostly from Jewish families, from Czechoslovakia to Great Britain in order to spare their lives from impending Nazi rule.

Because of his advanced age (he turned 105 in May this year), there had been doubts whether Winton would be able to attend, with some even suggesting President Miloš Zeman should fly to London, or schedule the ceremony for earlier than the customary date of Oct. 28, the Independent Czechoslovak State Day, so as to make sure Winton receives the award during his lifetime.

The order has five ranks, or classes, but it is not yet clear which one Winton will obtain. The last award he received from the Czech Republic was in 1998, when then-President Václav Havel presented him with the Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Fourth Class.

Winton, born in 1909 in London as the son of German Jewish immigrants who converted to Christianity and baptized their son in their new faith, had been trained as a banker and worked in Germany and France before visiting Prague shortly after the Munich Agreement had forced Czechoslovakia to hand over much of its Bohemian border regions to the German Reich.

In Prague, Winton found his calling, as he recognized the need to get the children out of the country as quickly as possible before the Germans took over. He contacted numerous countries, and although the United States rejected his pleas (because government officials considered the proposition of adopting children whose parents were still alive to be “contrary to the laws of God”), Great Britain offered a helping hand on condition specific families ask for specific children, a provision that required a great deal of planning on his part, but which ultimately bore fruit.

In total, 669 children were saved through eight train journeys across Germany and the Netherlands to the Hook of Holland, where they boarded a ferry and reached the English coast.

The misery of the conditions they were escaping becomes evident when one realizes the first train left Czechoslovakia March 14, 1939, the day before Hitler’s army invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia, and the last train (with more than 200 children aboard) was scheduled to leave from Prague when Germany invaded Poland Sept. 1, thus sparking a declaration of war from the Allied forces. Unfortunately, these children did not make it across to border to safety.

The humble Winton did not tell anybody about his work and did not have contact with the children after they were adopted by their new families. In the 1980s, however, his wife discovered the children’s photos among the couple’s items, and his story was revealed to the public during a TV program titled That’s Life! At the studio, the presenter of the program asked everyone in the audience whose lives Winton had saved to stand up, which some two dozen people seated around him did, thus providing one of the most beautiful, emotionally powerful moments ever captured on television.

Perhaps the best-known child saved in Winton’s Kindertransports from Czechoslovakia was the Ostrava-born Karel Reisz, who had left Prague a month before his 13th birthday to join his elder brother, Pavel, who was already in England. Reisz would go on to become one of the most famous filmmakers of the British New Wave, directing Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and later the widely acclaimed The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which starred Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons.

Slovak filmmaker Matej Mináč has made a career out of telling Winton’s story onscreen, with a feature film, All My Loved Ones (Všichni moji blízcí), in 1999 and two documentaries, The Power of Good: Nicholas Winton (Síla lidskosti: Nicholas Winton) in 2002 and Nicky’s Family (Nickyho rodina) in 2011. In All My Loved Ones, Winton is portrayed by the English actor Rupert Graves.

Winton was also interviewed and features in the Academy Award–winning documentary Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, released in 2000.

A minor planet, discovered at the Czech Kleť Observatory in south Bohemia, has been named after him (19384 Winton), and at Prague’s Main Train Station, there is a memorial, sculpted by the Venezuelan artist Flor Kent, depicting him with two children. The statue was unveiled Sept. 1, 2009, exactly 70 years after the start of World War II.

There have been many attempts to persuade the Nobel Committee to award their annual Peace Prize to Winton, and anyone who wishes to add their name to the petition in favor of Winton getting the prize can do so online at Nicholaswinton.com, an initiative started by the students and the student council of Prague’s Open Gate Grammar School.

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