Man who saved hundreds of children from Nazis celebrates 100th birthday

Nicholas Winton, photo: CTK

Sir Nicholas Winton – the British man who helped save 669 Czechoslovak Jewish children from the Nazis in 1939 – will receive a telegram from the Queen on Tuesday to mark his 100th birthday. As well as the traditional reunion with those “Winton children” who settled in Britain after the war, there were a number of events in the Czech Republic to mark his centenary.

Nicholas Winton,  photo: CTK
Nicholas Winton’s act of compassion and determination – he refuses to call it heroism – shortly before the outbreak of war helped save hundreds of Jewish children from the Nazis. Mr Winton visited Czechoslovakia by chance in late 1938 at the urging of a friend. He was appalled at the conditions for refugee children, many of whom had fled into what remained of the country after Germany annexed the Sudetenland. Nicholas Winton told Radio Prague in a 2007 interview that he saw what was coming next.

Opening of a garden dedicated to those who saved children during the war in Prague,  photo: CTK
“When you map what Hitler did in marching through Europe up to the time of the Sudetenland, and knowing what the position was at that time, you couldn't really feel that it was going to stop. Why should he stop there when everything was working in his favour?”

Back in London, he organised a series of trains to bring Czechoslovak refugee children – mostly Jewish - to safety, finding new homes for them in the UK. He saved 669 until war broke out on September 1st, 1939. Incredibly, he filed away all the paperwork from the operation in his loft, and the story was forgotten until the 1980s. Since then there have been films, documentaries, books, and a knighthood for the man dubbed ‘the English Schindler’.

His birthday was also marked in the Czech Republic, with the opening of a garden on Prague’s Petřín Hill dedicated to those who saved children during the war, and also by the 178 pupils of the Nicholas Winton Primary School in the South Bohemian town of Kunžak. Václav Popela is the headmaster.

Nicholas Winton with his 'children',  photo: CTK
“We were thinking about what to give Mr Winton for his 100th birthday, and obviously material gifts don’t mean much to an old person. We decided instead to create a giant birthday cake made up of all the pupils in the school. So in the square in front of the school we made the outline of a giant cake, and inside it we gradually brought together all the children, each with a coloured square on their heads. When all 178 kids were inside, each one flipped over their coloured square, forming a huge cake with ‘ONE HUNDRED’ written on it. We filmed it, and sent a DVD to Sir Nicholas in England.”

The biggest event however will be on September 1st, when a special train will leave Prague’s main station, retracing the children’s journey across Nazi -occupied Europe to London’s Liverpool St. The date is significant. Not only is September the 1st the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of war, but it’s also the day the last of Winton’s trains was due to leave Prague, carrying its human cargo of frightened children. It never left, and none of them, it’s thought, survived.