Top: Sir Nicholas Winton at the Prague station where the children embarked for England. Photo by CTK/Tomas Turek
. Bottom: Sir Nicholas with Hanus Grosz's granddaughter. Winton saved Grosz in 1939.
Inside the lounge at White Waltham Airfield in Berkshire, UK, earlier this year, 99-year-old Sir Nicholas Winton waited for the arrival of a microlight, a small aircraft open to the elements. He was about to indulge his lifelong passion for flying. This was no ordinary flight, and he’s no ordinary Rotarian. Judy Leden, MBE, a world champion hang-glider and microlight pilot, flew from Derbyshire to make the flight, which has become a traditional birthday treat for the man she refers to as Sir Nicky. Her father, Thomas Leden, was one of nearly 700 children – most of them Jewish – who Sir Nicholas helped to flee Prague on eight kindertransport trains between 13 March and 2 August 1939, ahead of the Nazi invasion. A ninth train with 250 children was due to depart on the day war was declared, 3 September 1939. None of those children survived.
In 1938, Winton, a young stockbroker, had been planning a ski holiday in Switzerland, but a friend suggested he travel to Prague instead, where he experienced the danger posed to Jews and others by the advancing Nazis.
“It was a very cold winter, and all the people who had fled from Sudetenland into Czechoslovakia [and] who didn’t have relatives or friends were in Nissen huts, and conditions were very bad. There were five committees in Prague looking after the various … people who were in danger: the Jews, the communists, the writers in the PEN club, and other people on Hitler’s blacklist. There wasn’t any organization dealing specifically with children who had been orphaned or whose parents were missing. At the same time, parents were desperate to get their children to safety, even if they themselves were unable to leave. In order to help, we had to coordinate these committees and then see if the home office in England would let the children in.”
“In 1938, there were 10,000 children who came into the UK from Germany under a mass arrangement with the home office. They were put into camps, and then homes were found for them. However, the conditions for bringing children in from Czechoslovakia were different. I wasn’t allowed to bring in any children unless I already had a home that would look after them. I also had to raise the £50 required for each child to be able to return home after the war. I saw some of the children when I was in Prague and saw all the children when they arrived at the Liverpool Street station [in London]. At the end of the war, I assumed that none of the children were still in England. I didn’t meet any of them again until 50 years later.”
Sir Nicholas celebrated his birthday in May by being flown over the Thames Valley before attending his Rotary club lunch meeting in Maidenhead with Judy Leden. He said, “My first microlight flight was in 2003, and on that occasion, sponsors raised £5,000 (US$8,900) toward a new Abbeyfield home for the elderly. I should have worn bicycle clips, [because] the wind blows straight up your trouser legs.”
A Rotarian for more than 40 years, Winton served as a club president in 1973-74 and continues as a member of the community service committee for the Maidenhead club. He is still actively involved and is also the president of three local charities.
His wartime story only emerged in 1988 when his wife, Grete, came across a leather briefcase in the attic and found a scrapbook detailing the evacuations, complete with lists and photographs of the children and letters from their parents. He had put the briefcase with his working documents away after the children had been placed with their families. He never told anyone about what he had achieved. For 50 years, most of the children didn’t know the person they owed their lives to. He hadn’t even told his wife, but she persuaded him to have his efforts documented officially. Since then, his story has spread around the world. Today, there are more than 5,000 descendants of the Winton children in the United Kingdom, Canada, the Czech Republic, and the United States.
In 2003, Winton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. In November 2007, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the Czech Republic. And at the 2007-2008 RIBI Conference, he was named a Multiple Paul Harris Fellow by RIBI President Allan Jagger. Sir Nicholas said, “Rotary means a great deal to me; it encapsulates the various principles by which I live.”
At the event, Lady Milena Grenville-Baines, one of the Czech children he saved, explained how she found Sir Nicholas 20years ago through a chance comment at an Abbeyfield meeting in London. Another survivor, Rudi Wessely, was sitting next to Sir Nicholas, who noticed his accent and asked where he was from. Wessely replied, “I was brought to London on a kindertrain in 1939.” Sir Nicholas told him that he helped organize that train, to which Wessely said, “You are the man who saved my life.”
Lady Milena showed delegates the label that was around her neck when she arrived at Liverpool Street station in 1939, together with her permit and the list of children on her train. She said, “In 1939, as you scrambled to save hundreds of lives, Nicholas, you wrote in a letter: ‘There is a difference between passive goodness and active goodness, which is, in my opinion, the giving of one’s time and energy in the alleviation of pain and suffering. It entails going out, finding, and helping those who are suffering and in danger, and not merely in leading an exemplary life in a purely passive way by doing no wrong.’”