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Czech Republic: Film Honors British Man Who Saved 700 Children From Nazi Horrors

  • Askold Krushelnycky

A British man who rescued 700 Jewish children from the Nazis in Czechoslovakia in the years before World War II has returned to the Czech Republic for the screening of a film about his life-saving efforts.

Prague, 17 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A British man who saved hundreds of Jewish children from the Nazis this month returned to the Czech capital of Prague -- the center of his rescue work more than 60 years ago -- to see the premiere of a television film about his heroic mission.

Nicholas Winton, now aged 92, was a 29-year-old stockbroker in 1938 when he came to Central Europe on holiday. Visiting a British friend in Prague, Winton was horrified to discover the plight of thousands of Jews, intellectuals, and other people who had fled from Germany and Austria to Czechoslovakia, which was soon to become the next victim of the Nazi regime.

Winton, who lives near London, says he was convinced a terrible fate awaited those people. Most countries were already refusing to take in the growing numbers of people looking for shelter -- thousands of children among them. It was their plight, Winston says, that distressed him most:

"The problem of the children was that there was no organization to deal with it, and, on the other hand, that nobody thought that there was any chance of getting the children into any country because nobody would have them. But nothing is impossible which is actually possible -- if you follow what I mean."

Winton found that two European countries -- Sweden and Britain -- were willing to accept the child refugees. During his stay in Prague he arranged for Sweden to take in the first group of 30 children. In the little over a year that remained before World War II erupted, Winton returned to London and worked to persuade governments to accept the children. Despite being told that it would be impossible to find transportation, guarantors, and homes for all the children, Winton and a secretary wrote thousands of letters and by sheer determination cut through the red tape.

Nearly 700 children were brought into Britain. The last train Winton organized, with another 250 children, was scheduled to leave Czechoslovakia on 1 September 1939. That day, war was declared, and the train never left.

"A lot of things aren't done because people think it's not possible to do them. But anything that isn't actually impossible, there must be a way of doing it. This wasn't actually impossible, and directly I found a way of doing it. All people of good will in England did try to help."

During the war, Winton served with the British Royal Air Force. He did not mention his efforts to save the children to anyone, and his activities only came to light when his wife Greta, who is now dead, discovered documents about his work among other dusty items in their attic.

His story attracted the attention of Czech documentary filmmaker Matej Minac, who recorded the events in an hour-long film to be broadcast tonight called "Nicholas Winton: The Power of Good." Minac, who hopes the film will eventually be screened in Britain and beyond, says Winton is not a hero but an ordinary and decent man who did an extraordinary thing: "I was amazed when I came upon this story in December 1997 -- that nobody in any way, either on film or in books, had recorded this story. I was fascinated, and as I delved into the archives I saw that before World War II nobody had saved so many people in Czechoslovakia. How did he [Winton] have the vision, how did he know these people needed saving?"

Some of the people whom Winton rescued as children turned out to meet the man responsible for their fate. One was Alice Klimova, who was 10 years old when she arrived in London in 1938. After the war she returned to Prague. She said: "I and hundreds of others owe our lives to Nicholas because of his determination when most people thought it was impossible to get us out. Every one of the other children I know he helped lost their parents, who were killed by the Nazis."

She and others among those who call themselves "Winton's children" have managed to trace several hundred of those Winton helped. About 80 still live in Britain. Some 200 live in the Czech Republic while the rest are scattered around the world. Most know nothing about the man who brought them out of Czechoslovakia.

After the war, Winton worked for international organizations including the United Nations, where he dealt with refugee crises. He also immersed himself in British charity work for children and the mentally handicapped. He continues to be involved in charity work even now.

Winton, who is still physically and mentally spry, says the memory of the atrocities perpetrated during the war should be kept alive. But he said he was not hopeful that the world had seen the end of such evil:

"Well, if you ask me honestly to say what I think today, I think up to now nobody has learned anything from [World War II]. The situation is just as dangerous for this type of thing to happen as before. I don't think it will happen in the cold-blooded way that was organized by the Nazis, but it will still happen and unfortunately is still happening."

Czech President Vaclav Havel honored Winton with one of the country's highest awards for his humanitarian services in 1998.

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