PRAGUE, Sept. 11 (JTA) — In December 1938, young British stockbroker Nicholas Winton received a phone call that was to change his life — and save the lives of hundreds of young Jewish refugees.
The caller was a friend who asked Winton to drop everything and go to Prague to help thousands of refugees caught up in the wake of the infamous Munich agreement, which allowed Germany to annex a large part of Czechoslovakia.
Winton didn’t hesitate, canceling a planned ski trip to Switzerland to do what he could. By the time war broke out at the beginning of September 1939 he had succeeded in hauling 669 children, the vast majority of them Jews, to safety in Britain.
His remarkable exploits didn’t come to light for 50 years because Winton, now 92, didn’t tell anybody. His wife, now deceased, ultimately learned of Winton’s lifesaving work when she stumbled on some old papers in their attic.
The full story is about to be revealed with the world premiere of a documentary called “The Power of Humanity,” to be screened in Prague on Sunday with Winton in attendance.
Winton’s surviving “children” — who include former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s cousin Dagmar Simova, British Lord Alfred Dubs, film director Karel Reisz (“The French Lieutenant’s Woman”) and leading Canadian broadcaster Joe Schlesinger — all have praised Winton for his selfless dedication.
“Can you imagine a stockbroker giving up a skiing holiday in Switzerland to see what he could do to help others?” Schlesinger asked JTA. “He is a philanthropist in the original meaning of the word.”
Winton, whose parents were non-practicing Jews who opted to christen him, spent three weeks in Prague interviewing hundreds of parents who were prepared to part with their children. Sensing that war was fast approaching, he left a fellow Englishman to run the Czech end of operations and returned to London to lobby British officials to take in as many children as possible.
Unlike the German kindertransport refugees who were guaranteed entry into Britain, a tougher set of rules applied to refugees from Czechoslovakia.
Winton realized that British officials would ignore a one-man campaign, so he declared himself honorary secretary of the “Children’s Section” of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia. The section was fictional, but it had the desired effect: The British Home Office agreed to take the refugees as long as foster parents and financial guarantors were found in advance.
Winton says finding homes was the hardest part of his job.
“I suppose I was a key factor in the operation in so far as I didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” he said this week from a Prague hotel. “I work on the Sherlock Holmes principle, that if something is not definitely impossible, there must be a way to do it.”
Eight transports made it to Britain over the next few months, but the importance of Winton’s work was underscored when the ninth transport was prevented from leaving on the day war broke out. None of the 250 children on board survived the war.
Few of those who were rescued ever saw their parents or siblings again.
Another Winton “child,” Vera Gissing of England, said her savior could not be praised enough.
“He saved a huge part of my generation of Czechoslovak Jews,” said Gissing, 73, who has co-written a book on his exploits, “Nicholas Winton and the Rescued Generation,” due to be published in October. “He also saved our children and grandchildren and all the generations to come, and that is an incredible achievement.”
Current Czech Jewish leaders describe Winton as a hero.
“Nicky Winton is how I would portray a hero,” said Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities. “It was not only the fact that he saved so many children, as others did, but that he never advertised his achievements.”
Winton, who throughout his life has worked tirelessly for a range of charitable causes, is bemused by the current interest in his rescue mission. Asked why he kept silent for so long, he replied: “It was not a case that I consciously did not mention it to anyone – there was no occasion for me to do so.
“It may have turned out in the long term, as it has done, to be something very important, but as far as I was concerned it was only a few months of my life,” he said.
Others beg to differ. Winton was awarded the Freedom of the City of Prague in 1991, and two years ago was presented with the country’s highest civic honor, the T.G.Masaryk Order, from President Vaclav Havel, for his outstanding rescue work.
His “children” also have expressed their gratitude with a gold ring bearing the inscription, “Save one life, save the world.”
Winton’s only regret is that more children were not saved.
“The regret was that no other country came to our aid who were willing to take the children. The one hope we had at the time was sending a whole lot of children to America, and that of course never worked out,” he said.
“I wrote to all kinds of people in America and they all wrote back with different reasons why they couldn’t take the children,” he said. “If anyone gives you two reasons for not coming to dinner, you know they just don’t want to come.”
“The Power of Humanity” will soon be shown abroad. Director Matej Minac said a screening is planned for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles in the fall.
He added that negotiations are under way with a number of foreign television companies, including the BBC, and that the documentary will be shown at film festivals over the next few months.