I must admit, I hadn’t heard of Nicholas Winton until a few years ago, when he had already hit the century mark in age. He wasn’t a man I had read in about in history textbooks or learned about when I studied World War II in social studies class. And Winton probably preferred it that may. While it is important to acknowledge all the men and women who fought for their respective countries, few could say they saved as many lives as Sir Nicholas. So who was this mystery man?
A lad of humble London origin, Winton was 28 when the Nazi party first started encroaching on European territories in 1938. When taking a skiing holiday in Switzerland, a friend casually mentioned he should visit Czechoslovakia. He did. And he 669 children, most of them Jewish, in the process. It has been the kindertransport, (German for children transport) and Winton was at its lead. After getting permission to cross into the Netherlands and getting a guarantee from Britain, eight trains of children would eventually find their way to a new home and Winton personally worked with families in adopting the children and finding them happiness. Sadly, a ninth train of 250 never made it; stopped on the eve of the declaration of war.
According to one of the children he saved, Winton was a greater man than Oskar Schindler, because unlike the latter, the former never made any money off the youth he saved. Plus, the general public did not know of Winton’s greatness for over forty years until his wife found a scrapbook in the attic of their house. Unassuming as ever, he gathered up the children and then promptly went on living his life. He didn’t boast, didn’t seek fame or fortune, and saw it as a civic duty rather than a calling from God (later in life he declared himself an atheist). That is the definition of a true hero if there ever was one.
In 1989, the accolades and recognition started to come in when the BBC Program That’s Life reunited him with more than two dozen of the children he had helped saved. In 2002, at the young age of 92, he was knighted by the Queen for his role in the kinder transport. On May 19, 2014 – his 105th birthday – he received the Order of the White Lion from Czech President Milos Zeman, the highest honour that can be received.
He is also the subject of three films by Slovak director Matej Minac – All My Loved Ones – in which he was portrayed by Rupert Graves of Sherlock fame, and the documentaries The Power of Good: Nicholas Winton, which won an Emmy Award in 2003, and Nicky’s Family. A play about his life – Numbers From Prague – was performed in Cambridge in 2011. He was featured in the documentary In The Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport which was narrated by Judi Dench and received the Academy Award for best Documentary Feature. A statue of Winton stands in the railway station in Prague.
Other awards have included: Pride of Britain award, British Hero of the Holocaust, Order of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk – a Czech award bestowed to individuals who fight for human rights – cross Merit Minister of Defence, and in Kunzak there is Nicholas Winton Elementary School. In 2008 he was nominated by the Czechs for the Nobel Peace Prize. Two Czech Astronomers – Jana Ticha and Milos Tichy – named the minor planet 19384 Winton after Sir Nicholas. And so much more.
As my country is currently having its human rights record reviewed the UN, I reflect on the life of a true champion of human rights; a quiet hero. He was 106, and he died on the 148th birthday of my country. If any Canadian turns out be even an eighth of the man Sir Nicholas was then we can truly celebrate. But for now, we pause and remember a man who has finally gone back to be with the earth. A man, a hero. A legend.