PERHAPS we’ve all been both inspired and horrified by the movie Schindler’s List, which vividly depicted the horror and brutality of Nazi Germany.
A British man who saved 669 children, most of them Jews, from the Nazis has been awarded the Czech Republic’s highest honour. Sir Nicholas Winton was 29 when he arranged trains to take the children out of occupied Czechoslovakia and for foster families to meet them in London.
The 105-year-old was given the Order of the White Lion – that country’s highest honour – by the Czech president during a ceremony at Prague Castle recently. In a speech, he thanked the British people who provided homes for the children. He said: “I want to thank you all for this enormous expression of thanks for something which happened to me nearly 100 years ago – and 100 years is a heck of a long time. I am delighted that so many of the children are still about and are here to thank me.”
Sir Nicholas received the honour from Czech president Milos Zeman.
In 1988, the BBC programme That’s Life! aired an episode dedicated to Sir Nicholas. In the wake of his 105th birthday last May, a segment from that episode went viral.
The scene: Sir Nicholas, poised to receive an award recognising his humanitarian efforts during World War II, is seated in an audience full of admirers. Little does he know that those immediately surrounding him are grown-up members of that group of 669 Czech children.
“Can I ask, is there anyone in our audience tonight who owes their life to Nicholas Winton?” said show’s host Esther Rantzen. “If so, could you stand up please?”
They rise. The music swells. There are tears. It was a powerful moment.
Today, about 6,000 people around the world owe their lives to Winton. It was late in December 1938 when the stockbroker from Hampstead cancelled a holiday to go to Prague to see what was happening to refugees there. Winton spent only three weeks in the city but he recognised the impending threat facing the refugees, who had arrived following the Nazi invasion of the Czech Sudetenland.
Nicholas organised eight evacuations of predominantly Jewish Czech children in 1939, when the outbreak of war forced him to cancel the last train out of Prague. Having secured immigration documents for every child, Sir Nicholas then co-ordinated British foster homes for each of them. Some of these would become permanent, as the parents of many children died in Nazi concentration camps.
Over the years, Sir Nicholas has quietly accepted a number of awards for his humanitarian efforts. A statue in his likeness stands on a platform at Prague’s railway station, and an asteroid was named in his honour in 1998 by two Czech astronomers.
But Sir Nicholas would prefer to carry on in relative anonymity. And what makes him most worthy of accolade is this very reluctance to receive any.
“Winton hates to be thought of as a hero,” wrote Neil Tweedie for the Daily Telegraph. “He hates being compared with Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg, but he nevertheless deserves to be mentioned in the same breath.”
Recent reports from the Czech news agency say that a lawmaker, Jan Hamacek, has nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize, echoing a petition compiled by schoolchildren in Prague, who gathered more than 230,000 signatures in 2013.
Predictably, Sir Nicholas is unconcerned with any future honours headed his way. Recalling a birthday party thrown in his honour, he said: “As far as I am concerned, it is only Anno Domini that I am fighting – I am not ill, I am just old and doddery.”
Given what Sir Nicholas has accomplished in 105 years of life, it is likely the only person with the nerve to call him ‘doddery’ is himself.
In a time when winter darkness covers the land, remember the light of goodness is so much brighter. Through darkness comes light, through fear comes love, and through pain comes triumph.