Sir Nicholas Winton, who has died aged 106, saved the lives of 669 children, most of them Jewish, from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939; but his achievement long went unrecognised and for 50 years few of the children knew their saviour’s name.
Winton’s heroic wartime activity emerged in 1988 when the story, based on the contents of a scrapbook containing lists of the children and letters from their parents, was published in The Sunday Mirror. Winton had previously said little about his rescue mission.
When the Nazis extended their control to the whole of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Winton became so desperate at Home Office delays in issuing entry papers that he resorted to forgery. In nine months of campaigning, he arranged for 669 children to get out on eight trains from Prague to London (a small group of 15 were flown out via Sweden). As the exhausted children arrived at Liverpool Street station to be collected by their English foster parents, Winton watched from a distance.
“Inside I was cheering like a football match, but outwardly I was calm and quiet,” he recalled. “I knew that for every Jewish child safely deposited on the platform that day, there were hundreds more still trapped in Czechoslovakia. And I knew that because I was organising this emigration entirely on my own, I wouldn’t be able to bring out a fraction of those in such terrible danger.”