Children of Holocaust return to give thanks to Britain's forgotten Schindler

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The Independent Online
ON HIS finger, Nicholas Winton always wears a gold ring. It is inscribed with a text from the Jewish Talmud: "Save one life, save the world." It is the same text that grateful Jews inscribed on a ring for Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved 1,000 Jews from the Nazis.

Through Steven Spielberg's film, Schindler became world famous. Yet Mr Winton's achievement is equally great. He was a British banker whose courage and persistence meant that more than 600 Jewish children escaped from the Nazis in Czechoslovakia and made their way to safety in Britain.

Last night, some of "Winton's children" arrived again in Britain, nearly 60 years after they were plucked to safety from Prague as war clouds gathered over Europe. On Thursday, the Czech embassy held a "Thank You Britain" reception where Mr Winton, now 89, was reunited with some of the children he had helped save.

Among them was Vera Gissing, one of the children on "Winton's List". She has written a book, Pearls of Childhood, which recounts her experience of escaping from Prague.

"His incredible efforts ... resulted in 664 children escaping Hitler's clutches," she declared. "I was one of them. Not all but most of us were Jewish and had we remained in our own country we would have been bound not for Britain but for a concentration camp and an almost certain death ... To him we owe our freedom and life."

Mr Winton ensured that these children were transported out of Prague and found homes in Britain at a time when politicians were unconvinced there was to be a war.

In December 1938, Czechoslovakia faced a flood of refugees and political enemies of the Third Reich who had fled to Prague after the occupation of the Sudetenland. Asked by a friend of his on the British Committee for Refugees, Mr Winton went to Prague. His task, in the aftermath of the pogrom of Kristallnacht sparked by a Goebbels' speech - was to compile a list of the most vulnerable children. Hearing of him, Jewish parents formed long queues outside his office overnight.

"It seemed hopeless," he said years later. "Each group felt that they were the most urgent. How could I or anyone else in London choose the most urgent cases?"

Mr Winton returned to London armed with his list, to convince British politicians that war was imminent. "The politicians in England didn't realise what was going on. It was the time of appeasement and ... it was difficult to convince them that I was right and they were wrong."

The government stipulated that Czechoslovakian children would be admitted only if financially able British guardians could be found for everyone, with a guarantee of pounds 50 each (more than pounds 1,000 today).

Mr Winton's masterstroke was to have photographs of all of the children, sure that the sight of these young victims of war would convince potential guardians. "If someone wanted a child, they wanted to know what they would look like," he said. "It was efficacious and quick. You could show people a few pictures and then they could see."

Among the children he saved were acclaimed film director Karel Reisz and Dagmar Simova, cousin of the Czech-born United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. It was not until the Eighties when one of the children contacted Mr Winton through the sheltered homes charity Abbeyfield Homes, which the former banker worked for. Other reunions followed. "It was very, very emotional," said Mr Winton. "It is always very emotional when I see them. I cannot go to the jamboree this weekend but I saw them on Thursday night at the embassy and it was very very good."

Mr Winton has been honoured by Czechoslovakia and Israel for his work, but he has yet to be honoured in Britain, which many of the "children" are now pushing for."He has saved the major part of my generation of Czechs," said Ms Gissing. "That is an incredible achievement. It was a mammoth task."

"I was in the right place at the right time. And it was obvious that something had to be done," is all Mr Winton will say. "It is good to get a chance to do the right thing."