Sir Nicholas Winton was born Nicholas George Wertheim on May 19, 1909, to German-Jewish parents living in Britain. He left school early to work at a bank, and by 1931, he was working as a highly qualified banker in France before returning to London to work as a stockbroker. He was a strong anti-appeasement activist and joined a group of likeminded thinkers who were concerned about the dangers posed by the Nazi party from very early on.
In 1938, Winton postponed his skiing holiday to help out a friend in the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia. He was working for the welfare of Jewish refugees, and he singlehandedly set up an organization that provided aid to Jewish children from families under threat by the Nazis, working from his own hotel dining room. After Kristallnacht, the British House of Commons (along with the rest of the world) became fully aware of the very real danger posed by the Nazis, particularly to the Jewish community, and authorized the immigration of any Jewish refugee aged 17 or younger, as long as they had a place to stay and £50 savings to pay for their eventual return to their home country. For Winton, this was an opportunity.
Winton had visited Jewish refugee camps in Prague before Kristallnacht, and he was convinced (rightly so) that the Nazis would soon sweep across the continent, threatening many more Jewish communities. Britain had organized the Kindertransport, an effort to transport young Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria to Britain, but there was no major effort to get Jewish children out of Nazi-threatened Czechoslovakia. That’s where Winton came in. He reviewed applications from parents in his hotel in Prague, and eventually opened an office. As his organization grew, Winton returned to England to raise money for the transportation of the children and the mandatory £50 guarantee. He worked his regular job as a stockbroker by day, and in the evenings he tracked down donors an British families willing to foster the refugee children. The first plane full of refugee children left Czechoslovakia on March 14, 1939, exactly one day before the Nazis moved in to occupy the country. Winton would organize seven more transports by train until he was forced to stop in September of 1939 when Britain entered the war. A final transport was to leave Prague on September 3rd, but when it was announced that Britain had declared war on Germany that day, the train — and all 250 children on board — mysteriously disappeared, almost certainly taken by the Nazis. Winton always expressed extreme sadness at not being able to save those children.
No one knew what incredible feat Winton had accomplished for many years. He kept a scrapbook of the children he’d helped rescue — 664 of them. It was not until this scrapbook was found by his wife Grete in 1988 that the world came to know Nicholas Winton. He received numerous thank-yous from all over the world, including a personal letter from Ezer Weizman, former President of the State of Israel, and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for services to humanity in 2003 at the age of 96. As Winton stepped out into the public eye, more children who were not listed in his scrapbook were found. An additional 5 children transported to Britain by Winton were identified, bringing the known number of children he saved up to 669, though the actually number is suspected to be much higher.
Last year, at the age of 105, Winton was awarded honorary Czech citizenship, as well as the highest honor given by the Czech Republic — the Order of the Lion, Class I. Over the years he has been reunited with hundreds of the children he saved, most of whom are now in their eighties. His life has been the subject of three movies and a play, and last month he celebrated his 106th birthday, because if anyone deserves a very long and very happy life, it’s this incredible man.