Tributes flood in for Sir Nicholas Winton, the modest man who saved hundreds

Sir Nicholas Winton, photo: ČTK

The praise quickly started to flow after news of Sir Nicholas Winton’s death at the age of 106 was announced on Wednesday afternoon. Bravery, humility, and his deep humanitarianism were some of the words used in tributes paid by British and Czech prime ministers and Czech president Miloš Zeman.

Photo: Radio Prague
Nicholas Winton always appeared embarrassed by the limelight he later enjoyed in his long life. Indeed, his exploits in saving 669, mostly Jewish Czechoslovak, children from almost certain death under the Nazis only came to light by chance when a scrapbook was discovered in an attic by his wife. That led to the surprise reunion with some of the rescued children, now grown up with children of their own, staged by a popular BBC programme in 1988. Winton brushed away the tears as around 30 people stood up in the tv studio and identified themselves as ‘Winton’s children.’

Photo: Archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
The modest stockbroker, whose family was originally German Jewish, only arrived in post-Munich agreement Prague by chance. He had originally planned a skiing holiday in Switzerland but a friend helping with Czechoslovakia’s then refugee crisis as thousands fled the Nazi occupied Sudetenland persuaded him to visit Prague instead.

Winton was shocked by the plight of the refugees. Worse was to come with the occupation of the remains of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Winton had the foresight to realise, unlike most of his contemporaries, that the Nazi slogans about domination and racial purity amounted to a death sentence for Jews and others who had no place in their long-term plans.

Nicholas Winton's kindertransport
Almost singlehandedly, cutting corners and using well intentioned deception when necessary, he put together a fragile network to cut through the many obstacles getting the young children out to the only country that would take them, Britain.

His activities under the Nazi occupation quickly caught the attention of the Gestapo with supervision giving way to harassment. Nevertheless, Winton continued to organise the evacuation. The first train taking children from Prague left in March 1939; the last was due to leave at the start of September but World War II broke out and the foster families waited in vain at London’s Liverpool Street station. But the eight previous trains had helped almost 770 children to escape to safety.

Sir Nicholas Winton,  photo: ČTK
The honours piled up for Nicholas Winton after his actions became public, films were made of his exploits and he was knighted in 2003. The Czech Republic joined in, eventually awarding him the country’s highest distinction, the Order of the White Lion, in 2014. A frail Sir Nicholas was flown into Prague especially for the event.

There was even a campaign run by several Czech schools calling for him to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. One of the school’s that took part in the campaign was Prague’s Open Gate School. Headmaster Peter Nitsche explaind why the school pupils took part.

Peter Nitsche,  photo: Open Gate School
“Many of our children are from children’s homes, foster parents, broken families, so when they first met Sir Nicholas Winton and were exposed to what he had done for kids basically their same age, it struck a very deep chord within them. And it was a very emotional meeting, it left a deep impression on our students. And so they tried very hard to gain the respect and recognition that they felt he deserved for what he had done for children all those years ago.

“Everybody that had met him, all our kids, said this was a man with a fantastic sense of humour, all that sparkle about him in his life and in his eye. And I know that if you were to speak to them today you would hear from them to this day they have lost a family member from Open Gate, That is how close they came to him.”