The Second World War wasn’t officially declared until September 1, 1939, however, this was hardly the start of Hitler’s reign of terror.
More than a year before the war began, Germany and Italy both became aggressive powers across the European Union. By March 1938, Germany had annexed Austria in an attempt to make much of Europe a “Greater German Reich.” Not long after the claim of Austria, Hitler and his supporters began showing interest in taking over the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia.
With threats of war looming across Europe, a large rescue effort aimed at saving children from Nazi-ruled countries had begun. While almost 10,000 refugee children were brought into the the U.K. as part of the rescue effort, there was one man who was able to rescue nearly 700 children all on his own.
Nicholas Winton, a stockbroker of German-Jewish descent, had planned to spend his post-Christmas holiday skiing in the Swiss Alps.
Forgoing his planned trip, the man instead decided to visit his friend Martin Blake, who was working in Prague as an associate of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia. During his visit, Blake was able to persuade Winton into staying in Prague to do Jewish welfare work.
During his time in Prague, Winton ran an organization to help Jewish children out of his hotel.
In November 1938, the British House of Commons approved a measure that allowed refugees under the age of 17 to go to Britain, provided they had a place to stay.
The major problem in Winton’s rescue efforts was passing children through the Netherlands, which had closed its borders to Jewish refugees following the events of Kristallnacht.
Sneaking refugees onto trains passing through the Netherlands, Winton was able to find British homes for 669 children.
In an effort to rescue even more children, Winton placed images of them in publications such as the Picture Post and even wrote to U.S. politicians asking them to consider providing homes to refugees.
Winton rescued children right up until September 1, 1939, when a train full of kids destined for Britain was never able to depart thanks to Hitler’s invasion of Poland.
Despite his heroic efforts during the war, Winton never exploited his humanitarian endeavors. In fact, his good deeds went relatively unnoticed until his wife came across a scrapbook in their attic, containing lists of children's names. These were the people he saved from Hitler.
The world was not made aware of Winton’s bravery until he became the topic of discussion during an 1988 episode of the BBC program, “That’s Life!” Watch what happens when he realizes he's surrounded by the people who wouldn't have been there without his help.video-player-present
In 2003, Winton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to humanity. He was also awarded the Order of the White Lion in 2014 by Miloš Zeman, the current Czech President.
Nicholas Winton died on July 1, 2015 at the age of 106. While he may no longer be with us, his heroic deeds will never be forgotten. To honor Winton’s legacy, be sure to share this story with friends.