26 August 2014

The Man Who Saved Hundreds of Children, Part 2

(Last of two parts)

Czech Children
When Nicholas Winton decided that he had to do something to help in repatriating children from danger zones before World War 2 breaks out in 1938, he knew that it will not be easy.

After his Prague office was swamped by hundreds of parents who place the future of their children in his hands, Winton contacted the governments of nations he thought could take in the children. Only Sweden and the English government said yes. Great Britain even promised to accept children under the age of 18 as long as he found homes and guarantors who could deposit £50 for each child to pay for their return home.

On 14 March 1939, Winton had his first successful operation. The first transport of children left Prague for Britain by airplane. Winton managed to organize seven more transports that departed from Prague's Wilson Railway Station. The groups then crossed the English Channel by boat and finally ended their journey at London's Liverpool Street station. At the station, British foster parents waited to collect their charges. Winton, who organized their rescue, was set on matching the right child to the right foster parents.

The last trainload of children left on 2 August 1939, bringing the total of rescued children to 669. It is impossible to imagine the emotions of parents sending their children to safety, knowing they may never be reunited, and impossible to imagine the fears of the children leaving the lives they knew and their loved ones for the unknown.

On 1 September 1939 the biggest transport of children was to take place, but on that day Hitler invaded Poland, and all borders controlled by Germany were closed. This put an end to Winton's rescue efforts. Winton has said many times that the vision that haunts him most to this day is the picture of hundreds of children waiting eagerly at Wilson Station in Prague for that last aborted transport.

"Within hours of the announcement, the train disappeared. None of the 250 children aboard was seen again. We had 250 families waiting at Liverpool Street that day in vain. If the train had been a day earlier, it would have come through. Not a single one of those children was heard of again, which is an awful feeling," Winton recalled.

After the war, Nicholas Winton didn't tell anyone, not even his wife Grete about his wartime rescue efforts. In 1988, a half century later, Grete found a scrapbook from 1939 in their attic, with all the children's photos, a complete list of names, a few letters from parents of the children to Winton and other documents. She finally learned the whole story.

Today the scrapbooks and other papers are held at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, in Israel.

Grete shared the story with Dr. Elisabeth Maxwell, a Holocaust historian and the wife of newspaper magnate Robert Maxwell. Robert Maxwell arranged for his newspaper to publish articles on Winton's amazing deeds.

Winton's extraordinary story led to his appearance on Esther Rantzen's BBC television program, “That's Life”. In the studio, emotions ran high as Winton's "children" introduced themselves and expressed their gratitude to him for saving their lives. Because the program was aired nationwide, many of the rescued children also wrote to him and thanked him. Letters came from all over the world, and new faces still appear at his door, introducing themselves by names that match the documents from 1939.

Today, after he was knighted by the Queen of England for his work, Sir Nicholas Winton, age 105, resides at his home in Maidenhead, Great Britain. He still wears a ring given to him by some of the children he saved. It is inscribed with a line from the Talmud, the book of Jewish law. It reads:

"Save one life, save the world."

Other notable heroes during that time include the following:
  1. Dimitar Peshev – a Bulgarian diplomat, Minister of Justice (1935-1936), before World War II. He rebelled against the pro-Nazi cabinet and prevented the deportation of Bulgaria's 48,000 Jews.
  2. Chiune Sugihara – a Japanese diplomat who in 1940 wrote travel visas that allowed more than 6,000 Jewish refugees to escape from Lithuania.
  3. Irena Sendler – a Polish nurse/social worker who smuggled some 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto.
  4. Aristides de Sousa Mendes – a Portuguese diplomat issued visas to thousands of refugees fleeing Bordeaux, France.
  5. Walter Süskind – a Dutch factory manager who helped about 600 Jewish children escape the Holocaust.
  6. Angel Sanz Briz – a Spanish diplomat posted in Budapest who saved 5,200 Hungarian Jews from Nazi persecution by providing them with Spanish documents so that they could leave Hungary.
  7. Giorgio Perlasca – an Italian who posed as the Spanish consul-general to Hungary in the winter of 1944, and saved 5218 Jews from transportation to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.
  8. Oskar Schindler – an ethnic German industrialist, German spy, and member of the Nazi party who is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware and ammunitions factories.