By Steve Beard
For 50 years, Nicholas Winton kept an explosive and dramatic secret from his wife. It was only after she found an old scrapbook in the attic of their home – names, documents, photographs – that he first told her about his secretive work in organizing the escape of more than 650 mostly Jewish children out of Czechoslovakia during World War II.
Many of us have heard the heroic stories of Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg. Like those men, Nicholas Winton courageously risked his life to save young children from the unspeakable horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. He died this week in Maidenhead, England, at the age of 106.
The gripping obituary written by Robert D. McFadden in the New York Times is well worth reading and tells his story at greater length. Read it HERE.
“It involved dangers, bribes, forgery, secret contacts with the Gestapo, nine railroad trains, an avalanche of paperwork and a lot of money,” reported the Times. “Nazi agents started following him. In his Prague hotel room, he met terrified parents desperate to get their children to safety, although it meant surrendering them to strangers in a foreign land.”
There is a dark – and yet glorious – legacy to his wartime humanitarian work. “Nearly all the saved children were orphans by war’s end, their parents killed at Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen or Theresienstadt.” This era marks such a dark stain on human history. At the same time, the survivors – in their 70s and 80s – still call themselves “Winton’s Children.”
“After finding his long-hidden scrapbook – crammed with names, pictures, letters from families, travel documents and notes crediting his colleagues – his wife asked for an explanation,” reported the Times. “He gave her a general idea, but said he thought the papers had no value and suggested discarding them.”
“You can’t throw those papers away,” she responded. “They are children’s lives.”
His long silent story was eventually told and he was justly honored for his righteous deeds. “One saw the problem there, that a lot of these children were in danger, and you had to get them to what was called a safe haven, and there was no organization to do that,” he once offered for his rationale. “Why did I do it? Why do people do different things? Some people revel in taking risks, and some go through life taking no risks at all.”
Nicolas Winton lived as if the risks were worth taking. More than 650 children escaped Nazi torture because of the pivotal decisions he made. Their families mark his passing with great gratitude – as should we.