I get tears in my eyes each time I watch the video. It is also hard to believe that this country was the setting for such a significant part of our world's recent history. Coming into a free society with IKEA and British grocery stores and giant advertisements, I do not appreciate that, when I was born, there were walls around this country.
At the Munich Conference in 1938, Hitler demanded the annexation of most of Czechoslovakia; because Britian and France had adopted a policy of appeasement, they did not stop him. No Czech representative was present at the conference.
Nicholas Winton knew that this invasion would continue to spread. He learned that the children of the refugees and other groups of people that were enemies of Hitler were not being looked after. He contacted other governments to see if they could arrange to take some of these children in. Only Britain, his home country, and Sweden agreed. They required 50 pounds and a family willing to foster each child.
Winton had to find funds to use for repatriation costs, and a foster home for each child. He also had to raise money to pay for the transports when the children's parents could not cover the costs. He advertised in British newspapers, and in churches and synagogues. He printed groups of children's photographs all over Britain. He felt certain that seeing the children's photos would convince potential sponsors and foster families to offer assistance.
On March 14, 1939, Winton had his first success: the first transport of children left Prague for Britain by airplane. Winton managed to organize seven more transports that departed from Prague's Wilson Railway Station. The groups then crossed the English Channel by boat and finally ended their journey at London's Liverpool Street station. At the station, British foster parents waited to collect their charges. Winton, who organized their rescue, was set on matching the right child to the right foster parents.
The last trainload of children left on August 2, 1939, bringing the total of rescued children to 669. It is impossible to imagine the emotions of parents sending their children to safety, knowing they may never be reunited, and impossible to imagine the fears of the children leaving the lives they knew and their loved ones for the unknown.
On September 1, 1939 the biggest transport of children was to take place, but on that day Hitler invaded Poland, and all borders controlled by Germany were closed. This put an end to Winton's rescue efforts. Winton has said many times that the vision that haunts him most to this day is the picture of hundreds of children waiting eagerly at Wilson Station in Prague for that last aborted transport.
The significance of Winton's mission is verified by the fate of that last trainload of children. Moreover, most of the parents and siblings of the children Winton saved perished in the Holocaust.
After the war, Nicholas Winton didn't tell anyone, not even his wife Grete about his wartime rescue efforts. In 1988, a half century later, Grete found a scrapbook from 1939 in their attic, with all the children's photos, a complete list of names, a few letters from parents of the children to Winton and other documents. She finally learned the whole story. Today the scrapbooks and other papers are held at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, in Israel.
Grete shared the story with Dr. Elisabeth Maxwell, a Holocaust historian and the wife of newspaper magnate Robert Maxwell. Robert Maxwell arranged for his newspaper to publish articles on Winton's amazing deeds. Winton's extraordinary story led to his appearance on Esther Rantzen's BBC television program, That's Life. In the studio, emotions ran high as Winton's "children" introduced themselves and expressed their gratitude to him for saving their lives. Because the program was aired nationwide, many of the rescued children also wrote to him and thanked him. Letters came from all over the world, and new faces still appear at his door, introducing themselves by names that match the documents from 1939.
Today, Sir Nicholas Winton, age 97, resides at his home in Maidenhead, Great Britain. He still wears a ring given to him by some of the children he saved. It is inscribed with a line from the Talmud, the book of Jewish law. It reads:"Save one life, save the world."