Everyday Heroes: Sir Nicholas Winton
During our visit to the Jewish Holocaust Centre earlier this year, we learned of many feats of bravery and heroism during the horrors of the Holocaust. These everyday heroes risked everything, including their own safety, in order to protect and shelter the Jewish refugees from being shipped to the concentration camps. In honour of these brave souls, we wanted to highlight one of the stories that we learned of at the Centre.
The Story of Sir Nicholas Winton
A young stock broker living in London during the 1930s, Winton lived a reasonably comfortable life. It is an incredible act of selflessness, then, that he travelled from the safety of London to Prague, where many Jewish refugees were desperate to flee the country in fear of the expanding Nazi regime. It was during this visit, as Winton was helping parents to send their children out of the country on trains, that he was caught on film holding a child, which is represented in the photo above. Winton visited the concentration camps and was horrified at the conditions that the 150,000 prisoners, including children, were forced to endure. Although he had no experience in bureaucracy, Winton knew that he had to take action somehow.
I work on the motto that if something’s not impossible, there must be a way of doing it.
With that determination in mind, Winton set up in an unused hotel in Prague, taking down the details of children whose parents wanted to usher them out of the country as soon as possible. He worked tirelessly throughout the night with thousands of parents begging him to take their children away from the Germans.
Saving the Children
When he returned to London, Winton had the tricky task of convincing the British government to allow him to bring the thousands of children into England. In a stroke of genius, Winton stole the stationary from an established refugee organisation, added a non-existent Children’s Sector, and made himself the chair in order to appear legitimate. When asked about his maneuver through the bureaucracy of Britain, Winton is modest about his quick thinking, revealing that all he required to pull it off was a printing press.
Winton continued to work long nights in a tiny Central London office, with his mother and a team of volunteers, to organise the safe refuge of the children. When Britain agreed to accept the children if they had families prepared to accept them, Winton and his team ran advertisements with the childrens’ photographs. Although this agreement was met, the British government was slow in producing the children’s travel documents. For the sake of getting the children out safely, Winton was driven to forging the travel documents and bribing officials to allow them though.
The first train full of children left Prague on March 14th, 1939 – the day before German troops occupied Prague and Czechoslovakia. Violence against the Jewish citizens broke out shortly after. Through his efforts, Winton enabled seven trains to escort children out of Prague and across the channel to England, where they were welcoming into foster families. The final, eighth, train carrying 250 children was scheduled to depart on September 1st – the day the war broke out officially. Even beyond the outbreak of the Second World War, Winton served with the Red Cross and later in the Royal Air Force as an aircraftsman.
Interview with Sir Nicholas Winton
A documentary on Winton’s life was produced by Matej Minac, titled Nicky’s Family, and was named best documentary at the Montreal World Film Festival. The incredible part of Winton’s story is that for 50 years, he sought no recognition and told no one about his part in saving over 600 children from concentration camps. In 1998, the ABC learned of Winton’s outstanding heroism and invited him to be part of a program. Without his knowledge, the ABC invited some of the men and women who were saved by Winton during the war, and revealed it to his during the program.
Winton was interviewed by 60 Minutes in 2014 following the documentary’s release on DVD. The interview explores Winton’s motivations and heroic actions in the years before the War broke out. The interviewer also speaks with Hugo Meisle, a Holocaust survivor who was rescued from certain death by Winton’s deeds. You can view the full interview below:
In the years since the war, Winton’s charitable nature has continued to bring light and hope to those around him. He has assisted people with special needs and built homes for the elderly, and was knighted in 2003. Even with his admirable actions, Winton’s modesty is why we believe he is a true hero.
There is too much emphasis nowadays on the past and what has happened, and nobody is concentrating on the present and the future.
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