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The 'British Schindler' who saved 669 children from the Nazis with his humanitarian aid - and told barely anyone

Whereas in the movies they wear skintight Lycra, boast super strength and are always there to save the day just in the nick of time, real life heroes are a lot more complex - and a lot less recognisable. Especially when they barely talk about their valiant humanitarian aid work for 50 years.

In fact, not many people really paid Nicholas Winton much attention at all, until 1988 when his wife Grete found a scrapbook with a list of names and photos of over 600 of the children he had saved from the Nazis just before World War II, uncovering his unrecognised benevolent work to the world.

It was shortly before Christmas 1938, only months before World War II started, when Nicholas was planning on traveling to Switzerland for a skiing holiday. But his plans were abruptly changed when he got a phone call from Martin Blake, a friend and an instructional master at the Westminster School in London, asking if he would skip his planned vacation and visit him in Czechoslovakia to help with his Jewish welfare work. Looking back, it was the all-important invitation that led to him saving 669 young lives.

Nicholas Winton, famous for his humanitarian aid Credit: Getty Images

Once in the country, Nicholas began to help as an associate of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, the committee established in October 1938 to provide some desperately needed assistance for refugees under Nazi attack. After visiting refugee camps which were bursting at the seams, and witnessing the horrifying violence that was becoming the norm against the Jewish community, the 29-year-old decided he had to help.

Nicholas was sure that after Munich the Germans would soon occupy the rest of Bohemia and Moravia, so he knew he had to act fast. Setting up a modest office at a dining room table in his hotel in Wenceslas Square, Prague, he decided he would work his normal job at the Stock Exchange and devote his evenings to rescue efforts. There he brought together a small group of people to organise a rescue operation for children in danger from the impending German threat and thousands of parents were soon lining up outside of the offices in a desperate attempt to save their children.

It seemed like a tall order but, inspired by Jewish agencies who had made attempts to rescue German and Austrian Jewish children, he decided if they could do it, so could he. Years later, he would talk about his decision in a 60 minutes saying: “I work on the motto that if something's not impossible, there must be a way of doing it."

Transporting hundreds of young refugees across Europe required careful planning and the British government was only willing to let vulnerable children into the country if strict requirements were met. The 29-year-old, along with his colleagues, Martin Blake and Doreen Warriner, had to arrange foster families for each refugee and raise the £50 per child needed by the British government to fund the operation.

To make his plan viable, he had to convince members of the British public to take strangers in, so returned to London and placed ads in newspapers and on church and synagogue bulletins, calling out for volunteers. Luckily, the British public were somewhat used to opening their homes to people in need so Nicholas' calls for help received a decent response.

Evacuee Thomas Bermann holds his original British identity document at Liverpool Street railway station on September 4, 2009 in London, England Credit: Getty Images

But that wasn't to say it was easy work. After appealing to the Home Office for entry visas, Nicholas realised their response time was too slow so began forging permits to speed up the process, as well as bribing Nazi and Czech railway officials. Years later on a BBC show, he told his interviewer: "It took a bit of blackmail on my part".

Visas weren't the only problem he was to encounter; money was slowly trickling in to cover the £50 cost of each child escaping the country, but it simply wasn't enough. Amazingly, Nicholas is believed to have covered the extra costs out of his own pocket.

Realising he needed to save as many children as possible, the young man also wrote to other politicians including Franklin D. Roosevelt to ask them to take in children, but only Sweden were willing to help. Nicholas later estimated that 2,000 more lives could have been saved if America had been willing to help.

The extensive rescue operation looked like it was in trouble when the Germans occupied the Czech lands only one day after the first plane of children left Prague to arrive in London on March 14, 1939. But unwilling to give up, the London-born hero arranged seven further transports departing by rail out of Prague and continuing across Germany to the Atlantic Coast, afterward traveling by ship across the English Channel to Britain.

On September 1 1939, after months of hard work and success, Nicholas and his team had only one more group of children to safely transfer to their new homes. But tragically, it wasn't meant to be; the eighth and final train never made it to England.

Sir Nicholas Winton receives the Order of White Lion for his humanitarian aid, the highest order of the Czech Republic, from Czech President Milos Zeman during the Independence Day at Prague Castle Credit: Getty Images

Just after the last and largest group of 250 climbed aboard the train, all wearing name tags and carrying small bags in preparations to meet their temporary families, it was announced that Hitler had invaded Poland and all German borders were closed. All of the 250 children on that train are believed to have died in concentration camps.

After the outbreak of the Second World War, getting out of the country proved impossible so Nicholas applied successfully for registration as a conscientious objector and later served with an ambulance unit for the Red Cross. In 1940, he rescinded his objections and joined the Royal Air Force, rising to the role of war substantive flying officer by 1945. When the Germans surrendered, he worked for the International Refugee Organisation and then the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Paris, where he met Grete Gjelstrup, his future wife.

Although he briefly spoke about the humanitarian aid he arranged while standing in the Maidenhead town council elections in 1954, his achievements mostly went unnoticed for half a century until Grete found a detailed scrapbook in their attic which contained a list of the children he had rescued.

The world was first invited to discover the work of Nicholas Winton in 1988 when the BBC invited him to be a member of the audience of a television show named "That's Life." Completely unsuspecting, the 79-year-old sat in the audience as the presenter asked the room if anyone present owed their life to Nicholas Winton. A beautiful moment ensued as the audience members around Nicholas and his wife stood up, revealing he was surrounded by the people he saved. He said afterwards: "I suppose it was the most emotional moment of my life. Suddenly being confronted with all these children, who weren't by any means children anymore."

Over the years, Nicholas - who received a knighthood in 2003 - continued to be modest about his incredible achievements and had to be chivvied into talking about the events of the war, insisting that he was never in danger so wasn't a hero. He told the Guardian: "I don’t know what the fuss is all about – I didn’t do anything special.”

However, the total number of children rescued by Nicholas' humanitarian aid says otherwise. The exact number is uncertain, but it is believed to be around 669, many of whom still call themselves "Winton's Children" now. Thanks to Nicholas, rather than dying unpleasant and untimely deaths, these children grew up to do great things. They include Alfred Dubs, who became a member of Parliament, film director Karel Reisz and Renata Laxová, a geneticist who discovered the Neu-Laxová Syndrome, a congenital abnormality.

Yet, despite all of the lives he managed to save, Nicholas - who went on to set a local branch of the Mencap Association and became active with Abbeyfield Homes for older people - still thought more of the children that he was unable to rescue. He remembered the last group of children who he was not able to bring to the UK while looking through a box of memories in an interview with the BBC, saying: “My chief thoughts when I look into this box is not of the children who came, but of the children who should have come and didn’t come, couldn’t come."

Nicolas Winton statue commemorating his humanitarian aid Credit: Getty Images

Yet regardless of his regret that he couldn't save more, in his final years the reluctant hero's focus was always on the future. He told the Guardian: "I'm not interested in the past, I think there's too much interest these days on the past and what has happened and nobody is concentrated on the present and the future."

Sir Nicholas Winton died peacefully in his sleep in 2015, but his remarkable actions live on in each and every one of the children who owe him their lives, as well as in their families. He was a true credit to British society and should never be forgotten.

Nicholas was certainly not the only unrecognised hero of the Second World War. In fact, there are thousands of inspiring stories left to learn about, including Britain's forgotten Muslim WWII heroine, Noor Inayat Khan.

  • Aug
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  • Emma Brazell