Defying Evil: The Heroic Man Who Secretly Saved 669 Jewish Children from Nazi Death Camps
How one man’s courage changed thousands of lives.
More than 6,000 people are now alive because of one man.
Nicholas Winton never expected to see such a sight. Seated in the front row, he was stunned as dozens of people stood up all around him. They started to clap. Winton started to cry.
No one was ever supposed to know. The humble man had never told anyone, not even his wife. But those people standing around him clapping—they were the children, all grown now, that he had saved from Nazi death camps.
A Jewish Child Saved Hundreds of Jewish Children
Born in 1909 in London to Jewish parents, the family had changed their last name from “Wetheim” to “Winton” (and converted to Christianity) in an attempt to fully fit into their new home country.
The rest of life would also be a study in contrast. He became a stockbroker, despite embracing left-wing socialist values. He would engage in dangerous, heroic acts and tell no one about them.
At the end of 1938, Winton had scheduled a skiing holiday in Switzerland.
A call from peers at the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia changed his mind. In a hotel dining room, they compiled lists of Jewish families at risk.
The work was preliminary, but after Winton returned to London, the British Parliament passed an act that allowed Jewish refugees under the age of 17 to be admitted to the country, as long as they had a place to stay and could pay a security deposit of 50 pounds for their eventual removal from the country.
The problem was, the Netherlands had officially closed their borders to Jewish refugees. Any that were found were returned to Germany. But Winton persisted and managed to secure guarantees for the children’s safety. Slowly but surely, he and his colleagues in Prague moved 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia to Britain by train.
In England, Winton’s mother rushed to find host families and hostels for the children.
Winton filled out piles of paperwork to fulfill legal requirements. He wrote to politicians in other countries, including the United States, urging them to take responsibility and save more children.
Only Sweden agreed.
A 50-Year-Old Remarkable Secret
And then disaster struck.
On September 1, 1939, with Hitler’s invasion of Poland, World War II officially began.
Two hundred and fifty Jewish children, scheduled to leave on a train that day from Prague, were stopped and prevented from leaving. Only two of them would survive the war.
But in Britain and Sweden, 669 children owed their lives to the operation that would later be called the Czech “Kindertransport.”
Despite his praiseworthy efforts, the operation was largely forgotten.
Winton himself kept it a secret for nearly 50 years. He would go on to work for the Red Cross and the Royal Air Force. It was while working for the International Refugee Organization that he met his future wife, Grete Gjelstrup. The couple had three children.
And then, one day, Grete found Winton’s notebooks in the attic.
They contained lists of Czech children’s names as well those of their parents. There were documents that showed in which families the children had been placed. Grete confronted her husband, and they agreed to give the records to Holocaust researcher Elizabeth Maxwell.
Recognition long deserved
That’s when the BBC television program “That’s Life!”, invited him to the studio office.
On the program, the host Esther Rantzen showed Winton’s scrapbooks and recognized his efforts. Then she asked a simple but shocking question: “Was anyone in the audience one of the children who Nicholas Winton had saved?”
Dozens of people stood up all around him. Winton looked around in disbelief and started to cry.
Then the host asked another question, “Was anyone in the audience a child or grandchild of one of the children Winton had saved?”
At that, the entire rest of the audience stood up.
Finally, the secret was out. And finally, Winton could see just what a tremendous impact his work had had, not only for those children but for generations to come.
The British press at the time nicknamed Nicholas Winton “the British Schindler” for the meticulous lists that he kept that had allowed for the safe evacuation of so many children.
It was just the beginning of the well-deserved recognition that he would receive over the rest of his long life.
Fifteen years after that show premiered, Winton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in honor of his “services to humanity”.
He was also awarded the Order of the White Lion – the Czech Republic’s highest honor. He died one year later at the age of 106.
Seeing that entire audience stand up around him so touched Winton that he, like many viewers, was moved to tears. It’s a reminder of the exponential effects of individuals doing good in the world.