Nicholas Winton personally saved the lives of 664 children. He has been called "Britain's Schindler". But for 50 years, he kept secret how he rescued hundreds of children, most of them Jewish, from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia as the Second World War loomed over Europe.
Now aged 92, a short, mild-mannered Englishman wearing thick-lensed glasses, he seems rather embarrassed by all the attention he gets. He has returned to Prague for the première of a major new Czech-produced documentary on how he saved the children, whose makers hope to show an English version on British television later this year.
Mr Winton's first visit to Prague was shortly before Christmas 1938. He was a young stockbroker whose planned skiing holiday had fallen through. At the time, the city was in the grip of a refugee crisis. Nazi troops had occupied the Sudetenland, and refugees were pouring into Prague. Those who had nowhere to stay were living in squalid camps.
He visited the camps with a British friend who was already working for a relief organisation. He saw that nothing was being done for the children. As the clouds gathered, Mr Winton decided he had to get the children out. "Everybody said you couldn't do anything, but when I got back it wasn't that difficult," says Mr Winton. "Nothing is impossible if it is a reasonable thing to try to do." He is remarkably robust for a 92-year-old, and is still involved in charity work – for the elderly.
In the months after his first visit to Prague, Mr Winton almost singlehandedly raised funds to transport the children out of Czechoslovakia, and lobbied Western governments to accept the refugee children. Almost all refused; only Britain and Sweden agreed. In Britain he searched for, and found, families who agreed to care for refugee children.
In March 1939, Nazi Germany occupied the whole of Czechoslovakia, and Mr Winton realised he had to work with even more urgency. He grew exasperated that officials at the Home Office were too slow in issuing entry papers. Relax, they said, there won't be a war. Mr Winton disagreed, and resorted to forging entry papers.
Before the outbreak of war in September, eight trains left for Britain, carrying 664 children, each with an identifi- cation number round their neck. There were heartbreaking scenes as they said goodbye to their parents. The importance of Winton's work is now tragically clear – almost none of the parents survived. "He saved a large part of my generation of Czech Jews," says Vera Gissing, one of the children who saw her parents for the last time on that platform. Now a British author, she wrote a book about that time, Pearls of Childhood. Others of "Winton's children" include Karel Reisz, the film-maker who directed The French Lieutenant's Woman, Lord (Alf) Dubs, the Labour politician, and Joe Schlesinger, a Canadian journalist who presents The Power of Good, the new documentary.
Yet almost none of the children knew that it was Mr Winton who had saved their lives until the 1980s. He did not speak of it until at a charity meeting, he politely asked his neighbour where he was from. The man told him he was a refugee who had been rescued from Czechoslovakia as a child. He was Walter Wessely, one of the children Winton saved. Mr Winton's late wife, Greta, was clearing out the attic in 1988 and found an old scrapbook. In it were some of the postcards Mr Winton sent out with pictures of six children, letters he received from officials saying they could not take any more refugees, and, at the back, Winton's List, a record of all the children he saved.
After this, Mr Winton met the children he saved for the first time since the war. "I had been waiting for so long," says Ms Gissing. "To be able to put my arms around him, and to thank him for my life was the most moving moment of my adult life." Ms Gissing's father was sent to a concentration camp and died.
The Power of Good contains footage never before seen of Mr Winton with the children in 1939. The interviews with children talking of their last moments with their parents are very moving. It is clear that many of the parents realised they might never see their children again – but the children did not.
The documentary's Slovakian director, Matej Minac, stumbled on the story of Mr Winton when he was making All My Loved Ones, an award-winning feature film about the life of Jewish children in Czechoslovakia in the years before the Second World War. Mr Minac's mother was sent to Auschwitz, but survived when a friend spotted her and grabbed her out of the queue of people lined up to die.
Mr Minac is still negotiating with British television companies to get The Power of Good aired in Britain. "What excited me about Nicky Winton is that he is the only one of those who rescued Jews, like Schindler, who is still alive. Through him we can reach back to that moment," he says.
"If other countries had accepted the children we could have saved more," says Mr Winton. "If the US had taken them we could have saved thousands." One last train was scheduled to run out of Prague in 1939, with 250 refugee children on board. But the war began, and the train had to be cancelled. Those children are believed to have died in the Holocaust.Reuse content