The word “hero” gets thrown around pretty loosely these days. Just because a celebrity clown or an overpaid athlete is in the media spotlight doesn’t make them a hero. A hero is someone who puts the lives of others before themselves, risking it all in the name of human decency. For example: The brave Bro who shielded his fiancee from gunfire during an ISIS attack on a Tunisia beach. That man is a hero in my book — not athlete catching a Super Bowl-winning touchdown, as exciting as it may be.
Nicholas Winton was a hero. He died on Wednesday in Maidenhead, England at the age of 106. Today he deserves to be remember what he did in Nazi-occupied Europe, right before the outbreak of World War II. According to the New York Times, Winton saved approximately 669 “mostly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia” right before they were sent to Holocaust concentration camps with their parents.
His obituary in the New York Times is nothing short of mesmerizing. A London-based stockbroker in 1938, he traveled to Prague to witness the camps Jewish refugees from Czechoslovakia were living in. This inspired Winton to start a secret program to rescue children by helping them flee the country before the Nazis could put them in concentration camps. As the New York Times notes, “it involved dangers, bribes, forgery, secret contacts with the Gestapo, nine railroad trains, an avalanche of paperwork and a lot of money.”
The whole operation took balls. Serious, major balls. Thanks to his rescue efforts,Winton became known as “the British Schindler.” Via his obit in the Times:
In Prague, Mr. Chadwick quietly cultivated the chief of the Gestapo, Kriminalrat Boemelberg — they called him “the criminal rat” — and arranged for forged transit papers and bribes to be passed to key Nazis and Czech railway officials, who threatened to halt trains or seize the children unless they were paid off. Boemelberg proved instrumental, clearing the trains and transit papers, Mr. Chadwick said.
Mr. Winton sent more money, some for bribes and some to cover expenses for children whose parents had been arrested and shot or had fled into hiding, while many of the Czech families sold possessions to pay for their children’s escape. The red tape and paperwork seemed endless.
But on March 14, 1939, it all came together. Hours before Hitler dismembered the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia as a German “Protectorate,” the first 20 children left Prague on a train. Survivors told of searing scenes on the station platform in the final moments before departure as children sobbed and pleaded not to be sent away and parents faced giving up their children.
Mr. Winton and his colleagues later arranged for eight more trains to get the rest of the children out, crossing the Third Reich through Nuremberg and Cologne to the Hook of Holland, then across the North Sea by boat to Harwich, Essex, and on by British rail to the Liverpool Street Station in London. There, he and the host families met the children. Each refugee had a small bag and wore a name tag.
But only seven of the eight trains made it through, the last in early August, bringing the total rescued to 669. About 250 children, the largest group, were on board the last train out, on Sept. 1, 1939. On that day, however, Hitler invaded Poland, all borders controlled by Germany were closed and Mr. Winton’s rescue efforts came to an end.
“Within hours of the announcement, the train disappeared,” he recalled. “None of the 250 children aboard was ever seen again.” All were believed to have perished in concentration camps.
Nearly all the saved children were orphans by war’s end, their parents killed at Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen or Theresienstadt. After the war, many remained in Britain, but others returned to Czechoslovakia or emigrated to Israel, Australia or the United States. The survivors, many now in their 70s and 80s, still call themselves “Winton’s Children.”
Stop whatever you’re doing and read Nichols Winton’s entire obituary at the New York Times. Amazingly, after the war, he wasn’t officially recognized for his heroism until 1988, when his wife found a scrapbook in the attic filled with names. Read more about him over at The Guardian and The Telegraph.
What an amazing man. He deserves all of our remembrance today.