The Czech news Website iDNES reports that, on May 16, 2009, an old man named Nicholas Winton blew out a hundred candles on his birthday cake in the Czech Embassy in London. His birthday is actually on May 19, but the Czech Government wanted to honor Winton separately for his part in rescuing imperiled Czech children from the Nazis in 1939.
In 1938, Winton began to work in Prague for the British Committee for Czechoslovak Refugees, an organization that was helping Czechoslovaks who had been driven from the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia following its annexation by Nazi Germany. After the Munich diktat, he became convinced that the Nazis were planning to annex what was left of the country. Having heard of the Kindertransports that had brought 10,000 Austrian and German Jewish children to safety in Britain, he decided to do the same for Czech children. He was ultimately able to get at least 669 mostly Jewish children to Britain.
The first group left Prague on March 14, 1939, the day before the Nazis marched into rump Czechoslovakia. Over time, Winton had organized seven more transports, the last on August 02, 1939. The next group was to leave Prague on September 01, 1939, but the Nazis held it up due to outbreak of war. None of the 250 children aboard survived the war.
Winton’s remarkable rescue effort remained virtually unknown until 1988 when his wife Greta found his 1939 scrapbook filled with photos and information on 664 of the children. Since then, five more participants had been identified, and there may be even more.
In honor of Sir Nicholas’s heroism – he was knighted in 2002 – the Czech Railways will actually run the last train, with some of the “Winton children” and their descendants aboard. The Winton Train will consist of period cars and will be drawn by a steam locomotive, all found, after some effort, in Hungary. It will leave Prague on September 01, 2009 and reach London on September 04, where Winton will welcome it personally.
Winton’s reaction to all the fuss is somewhat bemused. “I am no hero,” he said, “ It just had to be done.”
The Winton children who, with all their descendants, now number over 5,500, would surely disagree. Doing the right thing the first time, simply because it was the right thing to do, has always seemed complicated; but never more than in this postmodern age when anyone wishing to avoid virtuous behavior can simply construct an alternative reality that includes no ethical challenges and walk away with not a single twinge of conscience.
However, the reality of ethical comportment that is timeless in nature can never be ignored or suppressed; and men like Nicholas Winton are living remainders of that happy fact. May he live another hundred years, in happiness and health.